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Fifty Words

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fifty Words
Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz.
Photo by Joan Marcus

A frequently quoted factoid about the close relationship between proximity and perception is that Eskimos have many more ways to refer to snow than do, say, New Yorkers. (Though chances are the latter group does so with a bit more color.) Michael Weller borrows the idea, and one of the more frequently cited numbers, for his explosive but downbeat play Fifty Words, which MCC Theater is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. As might be expected, however, in Weller's vernacular, those words are used for describing an even more amorphous idea: love.

It's important that, at first glance, Weller's richly textured rant against easy answers threatens to shun its very reason for being. From their first words to each other, Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) and Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) are at each other's throats. The couple have been married for 10 years, and were together for nearly as long before taking their vows, but they have not become particularly in tune to each other's language. An offhand compliment initiates a passive-aggressive harangue. Simple gestures are scrupulously scrutinized for ulterior motives. Conversations about the psychological state of their eight-year-old son Greg turn corrosively judgmental almost as soon as they begin. Could any of a thousand words truly call this love?

Exactly. But it's not long before the two also prove just as able fight on softer fronts and embody the gooeyness and unquenchable eroticism their acidic barbs so successfully hide. Once something sets one of them off, their hands and lips crank into overdrive, rekindling the fire that - as they recall time and again over the course of their first evening alone in nine years - ignited the night they met by random chance. In these moments, you see not just how they came together originally, but why they stay together after nearly two decades, even when the smart money says they shouldn't.

Strictly speaking, there's not much more than this to Fifty Words, and under other circumstances the nonstop fighting and making up by making out might grow dangerously repetitive. But Weller's slashing writing reveals these characters' hot-blooded insides in a way that defuses familiarity, even when the issues between Jan and Adam take a sharper-than-ideal turn toward the prosaic.

Suspense is in short supply from the first time Adam mentions his frequent business trips to the Midwest, and that he and Jan always fight before he leaves - what this is setting up is not hard to guess, and the finer details of this plot development are rarely among Weller's finest moments.

But this leads Adam and Jan to turn their marriage into a searing, bidirectional revenge fantasy that lets Weller reveal his sharpest dramatic daggers. He then plunges them into the couple's dusty domestic bliss with a gleeful abandon that wrests real heartache from their overly protected lives, giving both the deflated man and the wronged woman their moments in the harsh spotlight of guilt.

It's here that director Austin Pendleton's staging becomes its most fiercely enjoyable; Pendleton precisely proscribes both the joy and the sorrowful bitterness of these two people without forgetting the bonds - biological and otherwise - that won't let them go. He never lets them or you get too comfortable with their collapsing situation - something is always changing, whether one partner's hopeful outlook dissolving into skepticism or the floor of Neil Patel's elaborate Brooklyn apartment set becoming a battlefield increasingly littered with grocery-shaped land mines.

Butz and Marvel are dazzling as two overgrown children who've become as tired of themselves as they are of each other. Perhaps Butz never quite convinces as an architect or Marvel as a dancer forced by family struggles into early retirement. But their rapport in their hottest-and-heaviest moments, and its utter absence when they stand at the brink of the black hole of their marriage, is uncomfortably acute: rife with disappointment, resignation, and the understanding not just of what they could have been, but that they might not entirely hate what they become.

This is even true during a food-slinging attack that captures rage so unfettered you might find yourself ducking for cover, and during a monologue - delivered by one of the actors sitting absolutely motionless atop a kitchen stool - that's the quietest nuclear bomb detonation the New York theatre has yet seen this year. During scenes like these, when their contretemps is at its most brutal, Weller, Butz, and Marvel never lose sight of the languid warmth just beneath the surface.

Is "love" the best word to describe it? That's hard to say. But watching these excellent actors work their magic in the sobering Fifty Words will prove, at the very least, that all the words they're using are an integral part of your emotional vocabulary as well.


Fifty Words
Through October 25
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street (Between Bleecker and Bedford Streets)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral