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picture - Fifty WordsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published October 3, 2008


Fifty Words

now playing Off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater

through October 25

We are being re-introduced this season, in a sense, to playwright Michael Weller, author of Moonchildren, one of the seminal American plays of the 70s, and, after the seriously flawed Beast, a sigh of relief will accompany the feeling that in Fifty Words, Weller has returned to form. Here are the trademark Weller skills in full play: dialogue that snaps to attention, characters who reveal themselves not all at once but by degree and in horrifying detail, action that moves briskly and economically. Why then does one squirm with boredom within moments after the play has begun? Why, if this play is so well written, does it make one look back to Beast and feel that, disastrous as that play seemed, it was, at least in comparison to Fifty Words, churning with fresh ideas? Messiness may have given way to clarity, but the clarity on display here is hardly invigorating. Sad to say that, while Weller's new play may have been seen, twenty or so years ago, as a blistering and searing indictment of a contemporary relationship between a man and a woman, it looks, in 2008, more like a great argument in defense of same-sex marriage.

Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) and Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) have not, it turns out, been alone for one night since their son was born, and, on this particular evening, their son is off to a sleepover, leaving his parents on their own to have a sort of long night's journey into day of revelation and recrimination and, for reasons you will better understand if you choose to sit through their journey, physical exhaustion. It should be made clear that Weller does not pile cliché upon cliché, but, in spite of razor-sharp observation and lacerating language, each new revelation seems more timeworn than the last. Been there, as they say.

This does not mean that good actors couldn't bring life to the play and, in fact, how one responds to Fifty Words will depend on how one responds to the performances. One couldn't get better actors than Butz and Marvel and, under Austin Pendleton's sometimes nuanced, always anxiety-ridden direction, neither strikes a false note or makes a move that in anyway betrays the basic honesty of the play. But Neil Patel, in his design for the dining area of a Park Slope brownstone, locates the action with more definition than the actors do. In their jittery physicality, they seem less a middle-class Brooklyn couple than a pair of smart actors. Their performances are the stuff of theater, not of real life, which apostrophizes the feeling that we've seen all this before.

The Eskimos have fifty words for snow, and in his search for as many words for love in the English language, Michael Weller falls far short of coming up with anything the audience hadn't heard or guessed at long before the lights go up.


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