“The humor and the hurt in Fifty Words ricochet your emotions between giddiness and despair. It’s a thrilling 90 minutes…”
While their nine-year-old son Greg is away for the night on his first sleepover, Adam and Jan have an evening alone together – their first in years. Adam’s attempt to seduce his wife before he leaves on business the next day begins a suspenseful nightlong roller-coaster ride of revelation and passion that explores a modern-day marriage. As said by the New York Post: “…Adam and Jan…make George and Martha’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” union seem restrained.”
Everyman Theatre explores marital crisis in (more than) ‘Fifty Words’
The daily dust-ups between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich pale in comparison to the battle scenes being played out with considerable force on the stage of Everyman Theatre.Michael Weller’s recent drama “Fifty Words” focuses unflinchingly on a married couple, Jan and Adam, who have to face something formidable in their Brooklyn brownstone — a night entirely alone.
It’s the first such night since their son was born nine years earlier; the boy, having finally made a friend, is away on a sleep-over. This leaves the parents with a lot of time, if not each other, to kill.
Adam, a moderately successful architect, decides an amorous romp with his wife is in order, before he has to leave for another business trip in the morning. But Jan seems terribly preoccupied, both with left-over work related to her start-up business and with her absent child, who has developed a distinctive way of hiding under his own troubles.
Before long, the spring-loaded spouses uncover any number of suspicions, resentments and long-avoided truths.
“It’ll sting; I can’t help that,” Adam says to Jan at one point, treating a fresh cut on her foot after one of their rounds.
That’s nothing compared to the emotional wounds inflicted on both people before the night is over, more wounds than could ever properly heal. Recalling earlier conflicts, Adam tells his wife: “We were just learning how to hurt each other back then. We were amateurs.”
They are professionals now.
Everyone knows some seemingly incompatible mates who are nonetheless bound together. Marriages can be complex, as theater-goers already know well from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In that drama, George and Martha reveal an uncanny ability to goad and ensnare each other. Their weapon — or refuge — of choice is booze, so much easier than sex.
For Adam and Jan, physical intimacy is the trap, and has been from the day they met. They have developed additional buttons to push — the compliment that sounds like a put-down, for example. When they spar, the result is not pretty. But it does make for absorbing and (like Albee again) sometimes surprisingly funny, theater.“Fifty Words” has its share of creaking plot devices. And the reliance on a succession of bombshell revelations begins to feel formulaic. The play begins to feel long, too, since Weller repeats some of his points along the way and pads some of the dialogue.
Still, the material has an undeniable edge that often slices close to the bone as it seeks a key to the essence of that slippery thing called love — “There should be fifty words for it,” Jan says, “like Eskimos have for snow.”
The Everyman production, directed with a sure hand by Donald Hicken, digs into this unflinching dissection of fidelity, responsibility and parenting with two of the company’s regular stars, Clinton Brandhagen and Megan Anderson.
Brandhagen, a consistently dependable actor, creates a finely shaded portrayal of Adam. He persuasively conveys the character’s shifts between crude and sexy, oblivious and sensitive, angry and humorous (he makes a little moment early on, when Adam imitates a long-winded phone call from Jan’s mother in St. Augustine, not just amusing, but endearing).
Anderson effectively mines the unsympathetic side of Jan, with a hardness of demeanor and delivery from the get-go. It takes a little too long for the actress to reveal the softer elements, the qualities that would help explain the bond with Adam.
But Anderson ultimately opens enough of a window into this complex figure, who fears ending up “like one of those old couples you see in restaurants staring into space, chewing, nothing left to say.”
Given how much is simmering inside Jan and Adam, it’s fitting that the action unfolds entirely in their kitchen. Designer Tim Mackabee has fashioned a contemporary a space that is not so chicly stylish as to make Adam seem like a big architectural star, just comfortable and individual enough.
Above all, the long, narrow stage reflects how the characters, in so many ways, have become so terribly confined.
Jayne Blanchard | DC Theatre Scene
A night off. No kids, no responsibilities. Just a husband and wife, Chinese takeout, and a bottle of wine.
This rare “just the two of us” evening proves to be a dark night of the soul in Michael Weller’s taut Fifty Words, a piercing examination of how in the hell any relationship survives, much less endures. Director Donald Hicken brings out both the vitriol and vulnerability of Jan and Adam, played with bristling force by Megan Anderson and Clinton Brandhagen.
Set in a tastefully rehabbed Brooklyn brownstone in the home’s heartbeat—the kitchen—50 Words welcomes us into the cozy nest and messy inner lives of Jan and Adam, who find themselves without a child to worry about for the first time in nine years. With son Greg at his first sleepover, the couple has nothing to distract them from their marriage. Quickly, you discern their rhythm—she’s critical and tense, he’s cajoling and expansive. She’s a chronic worrier and workhorse. He travels a lot and blows things off.
The evening starts out with Adam as the seducer—plying her with wine and back rubs, talking about sex and trying to maneuver her into the bedroom. For awhile, it works—Jan lets down her guard and relaxes into remembering their randy first date and the early days of their relationship. Yet, old habits die hard and Jan can’t stop herself from cutting him off at the knees and Adam falls easily into the role of the wounded victim and placater.
Instead of making love, Jan sits down to work and loses track of time. This slight opens up old wounds and produces fresh gashes into the tired flesh of their relationship. As the night wears on, Jan and Adam open themselves up so wide you wonder if they’ve gone too far. The revelations and recriminations fly fiercely and hit the intended targets with such awful precision you find yourself praying for morning—a new day, the possibility of beginning to forget, perhaps even forgive.
Miss Anderson and Mr. Brandhagen attack the roles as if each word they utter would be their last. The opposites attract dynamic of their relation can be seen from the start—she’s slim and tightly muscled and clad in tailored pants with sharp creases and high heels; he’s shaggier, a jeans and barefeet kind of guy. Yet, the beauty of their performances lies in how adroitly they betray their types. For such a cool customer, Jan hides a piercing vulnerability and scorn of her abilities and talents. She needs Adam to assuage her profound disappointment in herself—and that knowledge just about kills her.
As for Adam, beneath that puppylike exterior lies a man with seemingly fathomless depths of anger, someone who has seamlessly constructed a double life. It is no accident that Adam is an architect. While seeming to absorb all of Jan’s barbs and insecurities, it turns out that his soft exterior conceals a tough inner core, a secret self he crafted out of feeling neglected and unappreciated.
The humor and the hurt in Fifty Words ricochet your emotions between giddiness and despair. It’s a thrilling 90 minutes, surprisingly not a downer even when Adam proclaims near the end “That’s marriage—two people disappointed in each other.” The play proves that marriage and relationships are far more than that and that the splendor of love and pain cannot fully be expressed in words—whether 50 or 50,000.
BWW Reviews: FIFTY WORDS at Everyman Theatre – A Powerful Play with Exceptional Cast
Charles Shubow | Broadway World
Are there “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”?
Is it true that “All You Need is Love”?
Is love really “…a Many Splendid Thing”?
Is this play Fifty Words just like “An Old Fashioned Love Song”?
I have to admit I could go on and on.
Playwright Michael Weller’s choice of the title is strange and there is a line in the play that explains it. “It’s a stupid word, “love”. There should be fifty words for it like Eskimos have for snow.” Does this make sense to anyone?
The play takes place in a modern gorgeous kitchen brilliantly done by Timothy Mackabee who is making his Baltimore debut as scenic designer. A graduate of the esteemed Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, Mackabee is making a nice little resume for himself having worked on Broadway’s Fela and a myriad of regional theaters. The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith did a great story on him.
Another Carver graduate and a member of the Everyman Theatre Resident Acting Company, the gifted Megan Anderson, plays Jan, a wife who after caring for a child is attempting to make it in the world of the internet. Her husband Adam is played by the terrific as always Clinton Brandhagen, also a member of the Everyman Acting Company. He’s a financinally struggling architect who travels a lot. Norbert Leo Butz played the role Off-Broadwayand Brandhagen holds his own.
The action takes place in the kitchen of their Brooklyn brownstown. They are experiencing their first night alone without their nine-year old son who is on an overnight in Staten Island. Does this not smack of a possible real problem?
If you answered yes…you are correct. There are many problems in the household which come alive during the 90 minute play under the capable hands of Director Donald Hicken.
The play is like Prego spaghetti sauce. “It’s all in there.” There’s talk of sex, arguments about sex, infidelity, jealousy, hatred, and ofcourse love.
The end leaves one wondering about the future of this family. Is is possible for them to live happily ever after? Who will be the first to hire a divorce attorney? Maybe they’ll go for marriage counseling? Will Jan just walk out the door like “Nora” in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House?
I’ve heard that some playgoers are staying home from this one due to the battles between Jan and Adam. Do not make that mistake. This is a powerful play with an exceptional cast.
Artistic Director Vince Lancisi spoke with me prior to the show. He commented, “Put on your seatbelt.” He was correct. It’s truly quite a ride. Don’t miss it.
BWW Reviews: Whether to Re-Up on Marriage – FIFTY WORDS at Everyman
Jack L. B. Gohn | Broadway World
When marriages go critical, as marriages will from time to time, the scenes and fights that embody the crisis will seldom be straightforward affairs. As playwright Michael Weller intelligently conveys in Fifty Words, his recent off-Broadway success receiving its inaugural Baltimore production at Everyman Theatre, the emotions that will have led to the crisis were inevitably complicated things, and the crisis’ unfolding will be consistent with those emotions. Except in the most empty marriages, no matter what the parties may have done to each other, there are still ties of love holding them together, however tenuously, in near-equipoise with the forces pushing them apart.
In living through these crises, then, both forces, the centripetal and the centrifugal, must have a part. To the observer, it might seem laughably incoherent, but actually it is just the way things are at such moments.
There are two ways a dramatist can approach this reality. He/she can make of the complexity a dramatic structure unto itself – one in which there is no truth but the struggle between the parties, and in which each mode the parties have of relating to each other, whether it be hugging on the one hand or screaming and throwing things on the other, is just another form of struggle for mastery, no more distinct, at bottom, than thrust is from parry. That was Edward Albee’s approach in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Fifty Words, though facially somewhat similar, actually takes the opposite tack, namely to treat seriously the contradictory emotions of the participants in the scene, to make the scene no more (or less) dreadful or dramatic than such a scene would be in real life, and to show the parties’ incoherence and ambivalence for what it is: the natural result of the messy lives lived to bring them to such a moment. It is a canny approach, because few of us will attain much maturity without having lived through such scenes, and the shock of recognition will be considerable.
The subject being a fairly universal experience, the two characters in this two-character play are Everymen of a sort – at least of the sort who inhabit New York brownstones and send their children to private schools. Adam (Clinton Brandhagen) is an architect, Jan (Megan Anderson) a former dancer turned freelance data-miner. They are likeable, even endearing, without being terribly distinct. Their nine-year-old son Greg, never seen onstage, may be slightly neurotic and/or afflicted with mild ADD. What ails Adam and Jan’s marriage likewise is fairly typical: the inevitable fading of sexual novelty, the disappointments and pressures of their careers, the stresses of parenthood, and an affair Adam has been having which, not very coincidentally, chooses the night of their son’s first out-of-home sleepover to become known.
Even before Adam’s affair tumbles out of the closet, we see the ambivalent way they treat each other, in love but not always loving, finding it difficult to connect. Once the mistress is acknowledged, however, the contradictions reach a fever pitch. She throws things that break; she gets a splinter in her foot; he helps get the splinter out; they make love; she orders him to leave the home, etc. He extols the way the mistress looks out for his feelings (as opposed to Jan, who he asserts does not), but then seems willing to promise whatever is necessary to revive the marriage – begging the question why, at least a little.
Whether the marriage actually will be saved is not revealed by the fadeout, though the play ends on a hopeful note. But it is evident that if the two of them remain together, it will not be so much the saving of the extant marriage as effectively a third marriage for both of them, succeeding the hotly sexual early infatuation and the stage in which they built up a home and a family.
Marriages, Weller seems to be saying, are actually multiple successive events, for which a couple must consciously re-up every few years. The title refers to the supposed number of words in Eskimo for snow (though I have also heard that this lexicographical multiplicity is an urban legend), and to a suggestion by one of the characters that there should be a similar number of terms for love (perhaps one for each iteration of a marriage).
I’ve not seen the various productions of Fifty Words (New York, Toronto, and Chicago, at least), but it seems that the play has undergone some changes since its 2008 premiere. Everyman gives it a solid rendering with two veteran company members doing the honors in workmanlike fashion, fully and convincingly inhabiting two average professional-class New Yorkers living through a garden-variety crisis. You believe in these characters from the outset, without finding either of them very remarkable, which I think is exactly right for this play. Director Donald Hicken keeps the action humming and the emotions real. And the set by Timothy Mackabee is a marvel, a straight shot through the fuselage of a brownstone with everything from a fridge to board games on display.