Americans, particularly, seem to have an affinity for anything relating to time travel. Think plot of every other episode of Star Trek, or the book, The Time Traveler's Wife (adults) or A Wrinkle in Time (kids), or chick-flicks like The Lake House...you get the picture.
So it only stands to reason we'd see this theme emerge on stage...and it does in Jason Robert Brown's 2001 musical, "The Last Five Years," now at the Spotlighters Theater in Baltimore.
While at no point do characters Cathy Hiatt (Lauren Schein) and Jamie Wellerstein (Bart Debicki) fall through a wormhole or whip their starship around the sun, the theme of time runs throughout this production. The play opens with Jamie excited after his first meeting with Cathy, while the latter is sadly poking at the smoldering remains of her crashed-and-burnt relationship with Jamie, five years into the future.
This brief play - it comes in under 90 minutes without intermission -takes Jamie forward in time while Cathy turns backward; as the play program notes, "Jamie and Cathy rarely appear or participate in each other's scenes; only as silent objects, props for a focus, or to provide a hint of what once was or could have been."
There is the one point where Cathy and Jamie share the same moment in time, connecting at the point that they connected by marriage-their wedding day, and it is the only point in the play where they sing together.
This dual-timeline device, I found, to be the most intriguing aspect of this production. The storyline itself breaks no new ground. Jamie is a writer on the rise, feels his girlfriend-later-wife doesn't understand him, is jealous of his success; he achieves some fame, temptations ensue, he can't deal with his wife anymore, leaves. Cathy's career as a singer/actress can't parallel Jamie's, she's too down on herself to connect with him, feels she's done nothing wrong, slinks off stage right.
So, not the feel good play of the year. But then again, that's the most real part of this play-relationships don't always work out. There's not always a happy ending. In a sense, "The Last Five Years" concludes with "half a happy ending" as at curtain, we leave Cathy at the start of the relationship, excited after her first date with Jamie, happily singing "Goodbye Until Tomorrow"...but of course, Jamie is just saying goodbye.
As I've sometimes found with Spotlighter musicals, there's an even split between the actors who have professional quality voices and those that, well, don't.
Ms. Schein has a powerful voice and uses it to her advantage with songs like "A Summer in Ohio" and "Climbing UpHill." Mr. Debicki's voice seems to resonate more from his head than from his diaphragm. Having both a mother and a brother who studied and gave recitals at Baltimore's famed Peabody Conservatory (and having dated a professional singer for a year), I've come to learn the difference!
Both actors seem a bit stiff at the play's beginning, Mr. Debicki especially, whose body language and gesticulations, both in moments of joy and depression, seem about the same. By the play's second half, both actors seem to have warmed to their roles and appear to more inhabit their characters rather than earlier when you have the distinct impression you are watching "two people act" rather than Jamie and Cathy.
Also, quite frankly, I could only make out about 30% of what the actors were saying as the music-quite good by the way, as directed by Kevin Roland-drowned a lot of it out. Word to the wise: be sure to sit on the far right side of the auditorium versus the left where I was positioned, clearly too close to the musicians!
As is typical of a Spotlighters' production, less is always more as Fuzz Roark, Alma Zemla and Jesse Doggett, who handled the play direction, set design and stage management, set an intriguing stage, creating everything from an apartment entrance to an audition stage to a pier. The artistic work, such as the oversized clock wall design, emphasis the play's overriding theme of time.
I attended the March 8th performance; Ms. Schein will appear as Cathy on March 15, 16 and 24th; Mr. Debicki, on March 16th and 23rd; while Norma Gomez will play Cathy on March 17th, 22nd and 23rd, and Zachary Carter on March 15, 17, 22nd and 24th.
"The Last Five Years" continues its run at the Spotlighters Theatre at 817 Saint Paul Street, now through March 24th. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors (ages 60+) and $16 for students/military. For more information, call 410-752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.