Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel are such talented actors that if it weren't for Austin Pendleton's careful direction, you could watch the first twenty minutes of Fifty Words wondering what was so dramatic. As it is, this production perfectly captures Michael Weller's A-game approach to a well-traveled(-to-death) topic: a flame slowly dying, the result of a toxic, contradictory marriage that sucks all the oxygen out of the room.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Everything you need to know about the marriage in Fifty Words can be summed up without any words. In Austin Pendleton's clever pre-blackout moment, Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) marches down the stairs and Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) comes through the front door, the two glide silently past one another. It's as if we've caught them naked. Moments later, we see them with their masks back on, playing the happy married couple, though now we're jaded enough to realize that they won't remain clothed for long, especially when even the cheery lines cut to the quick.
Given this underlying circumstance, Michael Weller has room to play with his cute and clever lines: in fact, by starting Adam as a goofball romantic ("In case there's any ambiguity, that was foreplay") and Jan as the intelligent thinker, he's able to make the most of the contradictions that so define humanity. It's hard to notice at first (and this is why Pendleton's actor-driven focus is so efficient), but both characters are struggling to bridge the invisible difference between them. Their first night alone in nine years (their son is at his first sleepover) has Adam trying to avoid touchy subjects with wine ("This is how arguments start, isn't it?") and Jan trying to unwind the knots that have her focusing on the food rather than her feelings. Fifty words is an awful lot, but the beauty of English language is how precisely imprecise that allows characters to be when sidestepping the bitter truth. If George and Martha's parlor games defined the last generation of Americans, Adam and Jan's doubletalk defines our world today.
Rising action, especially in a two-hander, often leads to melodrama, but Butz and Marvel are too nuanced for simple climaxes, and what's particularly satisfying about Fifty Words is the way in which truth seems to catch them both by surprise: "I had no idea you were so angry," Adam says; "Neither did I," Jan replies. Pendleton also uses props to shape the nature of these arguments. One of the most intense moments ends up being one of the most tender: it's hard to carry on when you've got a shard of glass stuck in your foot. In the midst of another meltdown, one character tries to butter toast: funny how impossible the small things become when they're swept up in a larger disaster. The greatest feat of staging is Pendleton's refusal to blackout between scenes: instead, he just shows a character, frozen in time, as one scene--one year, one lifetime--bleeds into the next. Precise yet undefinable, it's one more reason we need at least Fifty Words.
Fifty Words (1hr 35min, no intermission)
Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $59.00
Performances (through 11/8): Tues.-Wed. @ 7, Thurs.-Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 2 | Sun. @ 3
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