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Actors Create Depth in Bittersweet Love Story

By Alexandra N. Atiya, Crimson Staff Writer

“The Last Five Years,” the inventive and generally successful musical performed over the long weekend, recounts the break-up of Jamie Wellerstein (Joshua M. Brener ’07) and Catherine Hiatt (Kieran H. Shanahan ’07) a married couple whose relationship is dissolving after five years together.

The show, written by Jason Robert Brown, consists of fourteen songs, which the actors alternate singing. The play simultaneously advances and rewinds through time, with Jamie narrating the relationship from its beginning to its end while Catherine recounts the relationship in reverse, from the breakup to their first kiss. The two reveries intersect only briefly at the middle—just long enough for Jamie and Catherine to kiss, sway, and say, “I do.”

This circular structure leaves little room for serious character or plot development, and the audience doesn’t glean much beyond the basic facts. We learn that he’s a talented and popular young writer with a big ego (“I left Columbia and I don’t regret it / I wrote a book and Sonny Mehta read it,” he croons). We learn that she’s a struggling actress who spends the summers slaving away in a crummy theatre in Ohio, and that she feels lousy about not being able to cut it in New York. We learn that the uncertainty of their careers initially makes them desire each other’s support, yet Jamie’s subsequent greater success eventually helps to force them apart. But the syrupy songs, which are more sentimental than soulful, don’t give us more insight.

Yet the actors in this production portray the characters skillfully, and the imaginative use of the Ex’s space helps to tie the show together. Both Brener and Shanahan are capable singers with strong energetic stage presence. Shanahan seems truly lovelorn, showing sharp but plausible shifts between wistfulness, anger, and ambivalence both through her physical acting and her emotive voice.

Brener, who is more animated, counterbalances her overt sadness. Jamie is full of hubris, but he also has a charming frankness about him, and Brener’s interpretation blends both aspects of his character fluidly. Together, the two convince the audience that both Jamie and Catherine wanted something that the other couldn’t give, and that each feels distressed by the painful falling out.

Also commendable is Lauren L. Jackson ’07, who enters silently at the play’s end as Jamie’s editor-turned-lover. Playing the temptress without disrupting the two-character balance is a difficult task, but Jackson pulls it off.

The ingenious set, designed by Jess R. Burkle ’06, complements these seamless performances. Chairs line either side of the Ex and the actors perform in between them. Brown packing boxes serve as the building blocks of the set, and Jamie and Catherine transform them into couches, a bed, a pier, or whatever else they need to revisit their memories. Behind them, a series of photographs of the couple slide up and down floor-to-ceiling wires, and shield the accompaniment. Lastly, two hanging windows face either side of the audience—a detail which fits a show that feels like an extended vignette, a somewhat superficial, yet sincere, depiction of love’s bittersweet quality.

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