Local playwright Michael Weller’s portrait of a marriage

By Jerry Tallmer

In “Fifty Words,” the new play by Michael Weller at the Lortel on Christopher Street, the crunch comes toward the end of a difficult day in a long, difficult marriage, when the wife icily demands that the husband write down the phone number of the old flame he’s been having an affair with for some years.

An actor who had seen a run-through but was not in the show got chatting with director Austin Pendleton on the sidewalk outside the theater.

“You know,” the actor told Pendleton, “that play’s believable. I admire the husband’s decision. You know what? I would never have written down that phone number.” Then, after a short pause: “Know what? Maybe I would have.”  

And you know what, said a journalist who was having a late breakfast with playwright Weller and director Pendleton, I would either kill the lady – the wife – or give in.

Playwright Weller gave a dry laugh. “That’s the option,” he said.

He had, he further said, stashed away an earlier draft of “Fifty Words” as unsatisfactory.

“I dabbled with it a bit, then gave up. Didn’t think it worked.  Then I found the last scene” – the showdown over the telephone number – “while they’re waiting for their kid to come home [from his very first, unhappy sleepover]. A suitable upping of the ante,” said the lean, 62-year-old, New York-born playwright whose short dark beard and moustache and aquiline features might almost be called Satanic.  

This world premiere of “Fifty Words” brings about the reunion of Weller and Pendleton, who last worked together on the 1988 Broadway production of Weller’s “Spoils of War,” a memorably acrid revisiting of 1940s-’50s radical politics that starred the no less memorable Kate Nelligan.

The husband and wife of “Fifty Words” are Adam (Norbert Leo Butz), an architect whose future is past, and Janine (Elizabeth Marvel), a workaholic stuck in a meaningless computer-era job. They lead almost separate lives in their four-story Brooklyn brownstone, where in more romantic days they waited eight years before engendering Greg, the nervous little boy who is now 9.and given to hiding away in closets under bundles of clothes.

Her judgmental proclivities have all but neutralized Adam – or neutralized him into adultery. “I wish you weren’t such a withholding, anxious, critical bitch,” he says when things are still relatively civil between them. She says: “I am a good mom, you know. Í yell, I ride Greg, and you, and I worry too much, but compared to some …”

One thinks of “The Dance of Death,” Strindberg’s ultimate statement on the marital condition. “I do love you, Adam,” Jan says, then adding: “It’s a silly word, love. There should be fifty words for it, like Eskimos have for snow.”

With that, one also thinks of an angry empty woman from snow country – a Jan of the great northwest – except that Michael Weller was writing this play somewhat before anyone in the lower 48 had ever heard of the judgmental irrational critical witch of Wasilla, Alaska.

In fact “Fifty Words” is one of two plays that hatched themselves out of yet a third – or a first – play about somebody’s husband and somebody else’s wife talking themselves into bed with one another in a city that is not New York. It was called “What the Night Is For,” and so far has been done only in England.

Weller and his wife Kathy, a onetime (pre-motherhood) television executive, are the parents of a 21-year-old writer named Benjamin and a 19-year-old squash champion named Johnson. Neither boy ever hid in closets, says their father. The Greg in Weller’s play is “a composite,” he says, of what some parents told him about their own kids.

If you track Austin Pendleton on the Internet you’ll be led to believe that no one has ever acted in and/or directed so many plays and movies going all the way back to his post-Yale debut Off-Broadway in Arthur Kopit’s 1962 “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.” Austin’s stuttering defense attorney in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992) collapses me to this day.

It’s all an illusion, Pendleton says of the many recent films that list his appearance. “I think none of them will ever get seen by anybody,” he says. “They’re indie films and never get released. A lot of them took maybe three days’ work. You actually forget you made them.”

He is also a serious occasional playwright and teaches at the HB Studio in the Village. In short, he is, in the quite appropriate citation of a 2007 Drama Desk Award: “A Renaissance Man of the American Theater.”

Weller, who teaches at the New School and is heavily involved in the Cherry Lane Theater’s Mentor Project, has been very much on the scene ever since his 1972 “Moonchildren” summed up the restless fever of the 1960s. He is a product of Brandeis University capped by one year (of “complete serendipity”) studying playwriting under Stephen Joseph (the son of Hermione Gingold and publisher Michael Joseph) at Manchester University, England.

Weller and Pendleton first met long ago when Austin was about to direct a Chicago production of Weller’s “Loose Ends.” Now those ends are tied back together.