The last five weeks have no doubt been a busy blur at Signature Theatre since it bumped its planned Crimes of the Heart, starring Holly Twyford. Like a gypsy getting her shot at the big time, The Last Five Years, directed by Aaron Posner, joined the lineup last-minute in late February. What a lucky break for DC-area fans of Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical, two-person modern chamber musical. There may not be a sparer spare show to mount in a pinch. “Spare and thoughtful” is even the conductor’s first direction in the score at the top of Scene One.
Surprise, then, that black-box bastion Signature, known for its minimalist sets, would go a little crazy with setting. Daniel Conway converts The Max into a Soho loft apartment bolstered in back by warehouse windows for this production almost in the round – three -quarters, shall we say. And given the bending of time is a central plot device, a giant musical staff swirls from out of a writer’s desk like a brainstorm to encircle the stage, with loose pages and clocks stuck at 9:15, stuck inside. It’s a literal clue, as patrons soon discover. On the page, frustrated actress Cathy Hiatt and charmed novelist Jamie Wellerstein are out of sync from start to finish. Jamie’s constant rate is “moving too fast” while Cathy confesses to ‘never being on time.’ JRB cleverly tinkers with time to chronicle their five-year, doomed relationship.
Cathy’s story begins at the end, and Jamie’s ends at the beginning. Yet dynamo Erin Weaver as Cathy and gusty James Gardiner as Jamie manage to click like clockwork for this riveting ride. They take turns stringing story songs like opposing cosine and sine waves, all perfect mix-tape material due to the varied pacing and styles – from carousel calliope, honky-tonk, rock, Latin, shuffle, a show tune tribute to Wonderful Town … even ethnic Klezmer (did we mention Jamie’s Jewish? Oh, that becomes clear).
Time signatures also get kooky, at times changing up within songs: 12/8, “bouncy in 6/4,” 6/8 … In only three songs do Weaver and Gardiner sing together, mostly still in separate time-warp bubbles. The effect is like two lovers on a seesaw: When one is up, the other’s down, because what fun is seesawing without the ups and downs? Precisely midway through, they reach equilibrium and exist in the same reality, briefly, to seal the deal and get married (“The Next Ten Minutes”). They fade in and out of this original mash-up, conceived long before Glee popularized the concept, each owning a soliloquy with a different melody that blends into a duet until morphing into the same tune then, finally, the same note, in unison, on the words “I Do.” Musical poetry, even when lyrics become too prosaic for some tastes. Lush strings play on our heartstrings — and only string instruments need apply: a piano is caressed and pounded in rollicking homage to the composer by William Yanesh, who also conducts an exquisite pit consisting of two cellos, violin, guitar, and bass. Yanesh proves he has the chops to stand this test of time, and the musicians are so integral to the plot they’re at once supporting cast and dancers weaving tunes into magical tapestry.
The score is a treasure trove for real-life actors in need of audition material, especially Cathy’s sardonic audition song, “Climbing Uphill,” which embeds her neurotic inner monologue. With Weaver, one falls in love at first hindsight. She jabs at the opening “Still Hurting,” her belt lashing listeners to tears, while ever preserving Cathy’s deprecating wit and gleaming, if gloomy, reverie.
Gardiner, a consummate theatrical salesman, plays to his strengths: goofy shtick and grinding vocals. He excels in the risky business of adding his own dippy choreography, and oozes with a charm that somewhat dampens Jamie’s a-hole factor.
The one song that is hard to appreciate from the score, “The Schmuel Song” – in which Jamie presents Cathy with, what else, a watch for Christmas (and he’s Jewish, did we say?) while trying to jump-start her stalled career, is a delightful highlight in Gardiner’s hands. The actors work double time to supply reactions for their absent partners. Weaver does this brilliantly, summoning Jamie’s rejoinders. What this complicated device ultimately reveals is that the person they each love is more a projection – they’re on different wavelengths and trapped, perhaps by the nature of their imagination – drenched careers, by their mutually exclusive and unrealistic expectations. Too bad, so sad it takes two to tango.
Kathleen Geldard’s costuming adds another interesting dimension as it’s dominated by oranges and blues, which happen to be polar opposites on the color wheel. The same scheme threads through the bedding and set decor. What’s disappointing about the costumes, though, is there is a puzzling rhyme or reason as to when the characters add or subtract pieces. Cathy’s orange-spotted “Daisy Mae” sweater seems to morph into a funky blossom-quilted thing that she wears for too long, both in summer in Ohio and then later, earlier, in New York for “The Next Ten Minutes.” There’s plenty of time to add or subtract something, maybe a coat, as Jamie is wearing one. So why not? Same with hair and makeup. Weaver’s hair stays pretty much the same for the duration of five years, and good golly, what woman doesn’t change her hair, at minimum, every five weeks? Although Gardiner does a better job of aging than Weaver does regressing (is the secret in the lighting?), his gee-whiz twang at the beginning is closer to 13 than 23.
Lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin does tease the plot along. Like a rockin’ light show, shades of meaning – a stormy skyscape, hints of skyscrapers courtesy of the pit’s silhouettes – pulsate with the music, as if conductor/pianist Yanesh is also tickling the light board.
By the time we witness their hello/goodbye, the seesaw sags and it’s all downhill: both Weaver and Gardiner have been put through the vocal wringer. That’s understandable, given the rigorous material. Also forgiveable because, like a lover’s moon that wanes and waxes in halves and quarters, ever marking time, we choose to stay blind to the reality that what we perceive in any moment — a wavering performance or flat note — is a false glimpse of the whole pie, that glowing orb of talent that brightens a constellation called Shirlington Village.
Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.