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The Last Five Years

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"You are the story I should write," sings Jamie Wellerstein, wunderkind author extraordinaire, near the beginning of Jason Robert Brown's song-cycle musical The Last Five Years. But he corrects himself immediately: "I have to write!" he screams in song, as the band swells beneath him. In the new revival at Second Stage, which Brown has directed, you know just what Jamie means. Though in addition to crowing about the great new girl, Catherine Hiatt, he just met, he could easily be singing about the actress playing her: Betsy Wolfe.

Though seen before in roles both small (ensemble 110 in the Shade and Everyday Rapture) and larger (Rosa Bud in this season's The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Wolfe ascends to a new stratum here. Gorgeous and spunky on the outside, she also always maintains a connection with her heart that's poised to either explode in effusive joy or collapse in despair, and wields a voice that can oscillate effortlessly between searing belt and sweet soprano. Add in gold-plated confidence and impeccable comic timing, and you have a star poised to shoot.

She employs all these traits expertly, too, soaring independently in each half of Catherine's development: as a failed actress facing a failing marriage, and as a more naïve optimist who perceives her career and her life with Jamie as part of a landscape of endless promise. When we meet her at the start, singing "Still Hurting," she's been reduced to inert numbness, a state Wolfe tempers with a gentle anger that suggests she doesn't want to give Jamie the satisfaction of wounding her. "See I'm Smiling," sung later but set earlier, demonstrates how Jamie's thoughtlessness pierces Catherine's resolve, and the actress gradually lets it go to reveal the rage at his cruelty underneath. Her next number, "A Part of That," unveils the dam of emotion in its embryonic state of breakage, but still held together with hope.

Though Wolfe is utterly convincing in all these instances, she's even better when her timeline has regressed far enough for her to embrace some happiness. Her carefree (and show-stopping) rendition of the bitterly comic "A Summer in Ohio" is bright in its outlook and biting in its satire of loneliness, which Wolfe makes a natural evolution of where Catherine's relationship is and (unbeknownst to her) where it's going. "I Can Do Better Than That," in which she outlines her personal history for Jamie, and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow," Catherine's finale, sung after her first date with Jamie, are rapture given vocal form.

So thoroughly does Wolfe imbue Catherine with this indomitable spirit that it's a shame to have to report that not only is she not matched by her Jamie, but that her outstanding work also destroys the show around it.

Because The Last Five Years contrasts Catherine's living backwards with Jamie's unstoppable forward acceleration, the two only really share a single song in the middle ("The Next Ten Minutes"), and that prevents their union from ever feeling integrated. Brown's point is that the two were not ideal mates—he's gifted but self-obsessed, she's mediocre at pursuing her passion but dependent on him for her edification—and that's difficult, if not impossible, to dramatize with so little direct interaction between the two players.

Brown has mitigated this somewhat with his staging, which by way of delayed exits and thoughtful lighting design (by Jeff Croiter) lets each person echo more deeply in the other's existence than was the case in the Daisy Prince–directed 2002 premiere. Derek McLane's haunted-memory set pieces, which dissolve into and out of view against a dreamlike backdrop occasionally dotted with lamps and windows hinting at domestic tranquility everywhere else, and Emily Rebholz's costumes, are likewise more vivid and broader of scope than was the case the first time around.

But ultimately the story's effectiveness rests squarely on Jamie's shoulders. Because he's innately callous, questing for his own success at Catherine's expense and seldom supporting her except when it will benefit him, the actor playing him must be so unimpeachably likeable that you view the long-suffering Catherine as an equal partner in their joint downfall. The original Jamie, Norbert Leo Butz, perfectly blended the underlying nastiness with a niceness so total that you couldn't hate him even when he began sleeping around.

Adam Kantor does not achieve a similar synthesis. Though he sings with intensity and a solid baritone voice (which, incidentally, rings with a timbre eerily reminiscent of Butz's), his attitude is so dark and severe that Jamie comes across as only a grade-A jerk. In the opening minutes, when the Jewish Jamie is raving about the amazing "Shiksa Goddess" he's met, or riding an overwhelming wave of success at an age too young to properly manage it ("Moving Too Fast"), Kantor does not project the buoyancy or effervescence you need to believe this man is actually capable of loving someone other than himself. Even in "The Next Ten Minutes," when embracing Wolfe, Kantor may as well be alone onstage.

Combined with Wolfe's fierce likeability, this devastates an already fragile narrative. Though Brown is justly acclaimed for his songwriting in some full-out revues (Songs for a New World) and book musicals (he won his Tony for Parade, in 1999), and his pop-Broadway-fusion compositions here are infectiously rendered (and attractively played by a six-piece, string-heavy ensemble led by Andrew Resnick), the structural conceit is too gimmicky to give them useful form. It doesn't help that Brown's scene writing, limited to a small handful of phone calls and a book reading, are at best workmanlike; and his lyrics, particularly in the muddy middle-years section, are not his strongest ("If I didn't believe in you," Jamie sings, "then here's where the travelogue ends").

Wolfe, however, approaches her portrayal with nothing short of complete commitment and command of her abundant talents. With the zeal and resourcefulness of a bona-fide theatrical dynamo, she invests every moment she encounters with creativity and color. My favorites were her earning huge laughs merely by gesturing to a page in a book, when she turned her hair clip into a romantic rival with which she then duetted, and her ecstatic belting at the end of "I Can Do Better Than That." But there were countless others, as well, all proving that Wolfe is the real deal, even if the rest of The Last Five Years never really is.

The Last Five Years
Through May 12
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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