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Chicago by John Olson

Fifty Words
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's review of The Outgoing Tide

Fifty Words
Katherine Keberlein and
Darrell W. Cox

For the first thirty to forty minutes of this 85-minute, two-character play by Michael Weller, Fifty Words is an insightful play about the stresses everyday life places on a marriage. There are the challenges of balancing home, work and parenting demands, trying to say the right things (or at least not the wrong things) while seeming not to be trying too hard in doing so; and keeping a sense of romance in the midst of the mundane realities of the daily routine. Weller's premise is that Adam and Jan, an upwardly mobile couple on the younger side of middle age living in a renovated Brooklyn brownstone, are enjoying their first night alone since the birth of their nine-year-old son. In trying to take advantage of their son's absence, a candlelight dinner of takeout Chinese food and a lovemaking session are planned, but the night turns into a series of revelations and recriminations as their complicated and troubled marriage is laid bare. Sort of a Virginia Woolf with cast and running time cut by half, except that the son is real (though never seen on stage).

Beyond the everyday challenges, additional problems are revealed. Adam's architectural business is in dire financial straits, and the son appears to be suffering from an emotional disturbance that may be the result of his parents' troubled marriage. Fair enough ... such problems are common these days. It's about at the halfway mark that Weller starts to run off the rails with a revelation of marital infidelity by Adam. That plot turn raises the stakes, but also trades off the chance to give us a play with broad resonance in favor of an opportunity for thespian histrionics and a dramatic crisis to resolve. Even in the midst of this revelation, Adam and Jan alternate between (quite convincing) physical fighting and some graphic sexual activity; between insults and jokes, between fury and quiet regret. The mood swings are so frequent and dramatic, it gets hard to buy in to all the emotions and know exactly where to focus.

It's a shame, because Weller had a solid, if not wholly original, thesis for this play—that relationships are complicated. Couples may be dependent on each other, and have mutual knowledge and empathy unequalled in their other relationships. They may share responsibility for child-rearing and be partners in managing a household; share (or at least remember a time when they shared) strong physical attraction even while they notice every physical blemish on their partner. Jan sums it up, saying "Half the time when you're here I just want you out of my hair and when you're not here I need you." She explains the play's title by lamenting that we have only one word for love in English—"there should be fifty words for it like the Eskimos have for snow." Despite his descent into easy theatrics in the second half of the play, Weller communicates this idea well enough, and creates such real if not entirely likable characters that the play is worth our time nonetheless.

The play's delivery of its message in this production owes much to the masterful intimate realism that is Profiles' hallmark. Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein play the couple: Cox's Adam is struggling mightily to do the right thing while dealing with the business challenges of his architectural firm. Despite his infidelities, he seems to want the marriage to survive more than Jan does and comes off as the somewhat more sympathetic, though hardly angelic, character. While Adam is stressed, Jan seems the more deeply unhappy, bearing the bulk of the parenting responsibility for a troubled son while trying to run an at-home business and dealing with her husband's frequent absences for business trips. She gave up a career as a professional dancer when she became pregnant and is dealing with the reality that her life has turned out so differently from what she imagined. Cox and Keberlein create believable characters and deliver both the quieter moments and the high-octane rages the script calls for, with Joe Jahraus's direction maintaining an appropriate pace and tension throughout. The set by Thad Hallstein is a perfect re-creation of an upscale brownstone and there's a melodic and soulful original underscoring by Jeffrey Levin that helps establish mood.

Between its resonant theme, strong characterizations, and its suitability as a showcase for Profiles' brand of hyper-realism Fifty Words has enough going for it to merit a visit. Even if the play stoops to some easy dramatic tricks in its second half, we can give Weller credit for not proposing any easy answers to the troubles of this marriage. His play, like the marriage it depicts, is imperfect and complicated.

Fifty Words will play through June 26, 2011, at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, buy online at www.profilestheatre.org or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Wayne Karl

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-- John Olson



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