Fifty Words to lose your lover

By Christina Alex

Set in a married couple’s bedroom, the opening of Michael Weller’s “Fifty Words” make you feel like a peeping tom. The real action in Adam and Jan’s Brooklyn brownstone, however, takes place in the kitchen. On this particular night, 18 years after they met, the couple is alone – for the first time since the birth of their nine-year-old son; with his pet hamster in tow, he’s sleeping over at a friend’s house.

The two-person cast features Tony award-winner Norbert Leo Butz and powerhouse Elizabeth Marvel, who exhibit a palpable chemistry that underscores the play with a tension comparable to two tightrope walkers balancing for a 99-minute act (with no intermission).

Adam, an architect, is to leave in the morning on another business trip. To avoid the usual pre-departure fight with Jan, he breaks out champagne to celebrate their son’s first social success and Jan’s recent triumph in her new database business. Jan shuts him down by deflecting his praise and dismissing his need for sex as childish. This, in turn, spurs Adam to more manic gestures. He takes off his shirt, she starts to unbutton her blouse, he races upstairs to take a shower, and the dance – or is it a wrestling match? – begins. Conflicted between wanting sex and wanting to prepare for the next day’s meeting, Jan works on her computer for two hours while Adam works himself into a humiliated rage.

Austin Pendleton’s direction requires a physical dexterity that’s matched by the verbal theatrics, which are genuinely funny, sometimes over the top and occasionally lacerating.

This is Weller’s second collaboration with Pendleton, who directed his 1988 Broadway run of “Spoils of War.” Weller has favorite themes, namely the failures inherent in domestic politics and the unsuccessful liberal idealism of his parent’s generation. This fall, Weller separates these two themes in separate plays. “Fifty Words,” while prettier to look at, is a straightforward depiction of the home front that makes you uncomfortable in the same way as New York Theatre Workshop’s “Beast,” which shows two horribly disfigured Iraq war veterans returning home.

The battle analogy sticks as Adam and Jan recall their tumultuous ride from sexy first date and early years, when, according to Jan, “[w]e were amateurs at hurting each other.” One understands that their son acts out their dysfunctional union by burying himself under piles of clothes, hoping to disappear.

The exhausting circular nature of their ceaseless marital war is exhausting. In one moment of heightened emotion, Jan cuts her foot after breaking all the glass jars in the refrigerator, orders Adam to bandage her up, then tells him not to touch her. This “I love you, I hate you” pendulum keeps us guessing as to how this final battle with a family at stake will end. Will one partner surrender or will the family be destroyed? “Maybe we’ll survive the whole war,” Jan says at one point. It feels like the actors are figuring it out as the audience is, which is one more reason to see this play.

Waller works hard to offer a balanced perspective on the John Gray-ish differences between men and woman – and sometimes contradicts them, but ultimately depicts Jan through a man’s eyes.

The title refers to Jan’s line: “I do love you, Adam. It’s a silly word, love. There should be fifty words for it, like Eskimos have for snow.” More than illustrating the shades of love, however, Waller depicts its contradictions. His play illustrates the suffocation and delight of intimate partnership, and war with the person who may know you better than anyone in the world but sometimes feels like an unknown enemy.

Lingering questions, such as why Adam married Jan in the first place, and what did they each need from the other lead to one or two key emotional moments that ring false. Luckily, Butz and Marvel have enough skill and talent to fill in the gaps between the surface of the script and the emotional depths that “Fifty Words” reaches.