By Michael Weller
Directed by Donald Hicken
After a recent performance of Fifty Words at Everyman, one audience member gathered her belongings, stood up, looked at her companion, and said, “Whew!” It was the kind of exclamation one utters, eyebrows raised, after witnessing something horribly, painfully awkward. Fifty Words subjects its characters (and the audience) to an unrelenting wave of intense, mostly negative emotions, leaving an impression that stings long after the stage lights go down.
Taking place over the course of one night, the play follows a married couple, Adam (Clinton Brandhagen) and Jan (Megan Anderson), as they spend their first night alone since the birth of their 9-year-old son, who is attending his first slumber party at a friend’s house. Although the couple once enjoyed more carefree, sexually satisfied lives, it’s apparent that things have cooled. Jan, perpetually focused on work and parental duties, ignores Adam’s tender advances. Her husband obviously has other plans for the evening, plans that would pull her from the comfort of her responsibilities. Over Chinese food, he manages to get her to open up a little, and they reminisce about their first rendezvous, a chance meeting in an elevator that led to road head in a taxi and somehow paved the way to marriage, a worrisome but probably fine child, and a brownstone in Brooklyn.
Though it’s immediately clear that the situation is less than ideal, their slightly flirtatious banter in the beginning helps keep the mood light. The dialogue is well written, and there are some good jokes slipped in that lift the mood. But the romantic evening Adam planned soon spirals into a much darker place as secrets and fears and dashed dreams come to the surface, and the audience sees just how unhealthy the relationship is. One might notice the resident fight choreographer credit (Lewis Shaw) in the program; it turns out his skills are necessary. Adam and Jan, throughout the course of one night, drag out all of the unflattering parts of their personalities, and the viewer has no choice but to take it all in.
The set design is top notch. Books and miscellaneous stuff collect dust on shelves, a stainless-steel kitchen-ventilation unit dangles above the countertop, and a staircase that appears to have been pulled straight from someone’s house ascends from the stage into blackness. As in most households, much of the dialogue takes place in the kitchen/dining room, and the intimacy and believability of the space helps one connect with the people within.
The acting and directing are strong for a story with so many dramatic changes. One moment, the couple embraces, only to be flung apart again by a passing comment. Anderson steps into her character with ease, navigating the tumultuous waters of Jan and Adam’s first night alone with obvious skill. She shifts from reluctantly intimate to vulnerable to violent so fluidly one can’t help but be impressed. Brandhagen fully captures the role of the vaguely hippy, jeans-and-suit-jacket architect dad. One aspect of his approach, though, occasionally breaks the spell. In a recent performance, he put on a strange, vaguely Brooklynish accent—though the character is from Portland—and employed a few mannerisms that didn’t feel genuine, like what seemed to be a feigned limp. One member of the audience remarked afterward, “It’s like he was trying to be that guy Steve from Sex and the City.”
But most of the problems with Fifty Words come from the script, which puts everyone involved through a great deal of pain with very little payoff. The dialogue comes off as authentic, and Weller manages to get laughs during even the most stressful moments. But the script yo-yos so drastically and so frequently in tone that after an hour, one is exhausted. Ultimately, Jan comes off as a cold and completely unreasonable person, and when the two wonder how they ever ended up together, you find yourself thinking the same. Through the screaming, the fighting, and the crying, one longs to know what brought them together in the first place. In the absence of that information, the play is an exercise in watching a volatile pair puke their emotions at each other, with no investment and no satisfying conclusion.