Michael Weller dissects a volatile modern day marriage in his new drama Fifty Words, which takes a harrowing look at the challenges of an upper middle class couple struggling with their careers and a troubled son approaching his teen years. Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel portray Adam and Jan, the battling pair going through a major “rough patch,” with a passionate physical style that makes George and Martha from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf appear tame.
When the play opens it is 9:30 pm and the two have just sent Greg, their fourth grader, off to a friend’s house for a sleepover. This is the first time in nearly a decade they have been alone. And Adam, an architect who spends much of his time on the road, hopes to rekindle the romance in their relationship with an intimate dinner followed by some ardent love making with his wife, a former dancer, who has been consumed with her fledging internet business and concerns for Greg.
After dinner and some spirited foreplay, things quickly turn sour and the evening becomes a roller coaster ride of long held resentments and recriminations. What begins with laughter and wine gives way to comments about being needy and selfish. And rapidly escalates into ugly behavior replete with physical attacks and broken glass. What was intended as a night of coming together unravels into a stunningly violent breakdown as feelings turn raw and violent.
“Well, that’s marriage,” Adam says; “Two people who disappoint each other, but not quite enough to go their own way.”
The play’s title comes from a comment Jan makes concerning “Love.” “It’s a stupid word love,” she says; “There should be 50 words for it, like Eskimos have for snow.”
Fifty Words is a well written disturbing look at a modern day marriage and Weller’s dialogue is realistically frank and crisp with abrupt transitions that require a strong inner life from the actors for the play to be effective. Although the gifted stars give it their all, Austin Pendleton’s direction lets them down. The tonal shifts feel imposed instead of coming from a visceral accumulation of buried feelings that accidentally spill out. While the long night of domestic discord is always engaging the raw emotional impact is unfortunately diluted and we feel little for the sparing couple.
Scenic designer Neil Patel has created a fantastic interior to represent the couple’s upscale Brooklyn Townhouse where all of the action takes place.
Playwright Weller was propelled to prominence with his 1970 anti war drama Moonchildren about a group of college students living together and protesting the war in Vietnam. He also wrote Loose Ends (1979) and Spoils of War (1988) as well as the screenplays for Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981). After being absent from the New York theater scene for some time, he is back with two sharply written plays, both in production at the same time. The other Beast produced by NYTW is a dark tale about two mutilated Iraq war soldiers beginning their process of re-assimilation into society.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
Fifty Words opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, on October 1, 2008. Tickets can be obtained online at HYPERLINK "http://www.ticketcentral.com" www.ticketcentral.com or by calling 212-279-4200.