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'The Last Five Years' at Signature Theatre

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

"The Last Five Years," a chamber musical about a failed five-year-old marriage, has the distinction of employing a plot told in two different ways at the same time. The husband, Jamie, tells the story from beginning to end; the wife, Cathy, recounts their story from its end to its beginning. They join together in terms of plot and song only once, when their stories cross paths, at the point when they first meet and sing "The Next Ten Minutes."

Signature Theatre is currently producing an outstanding version of "The Last Five Years," brilliantly directed by Aaron Posner and beautifully acted by Erin Weaver and James Gardiner.

"The Last Five Years" was written by Jason Robert Brown, who packed as much comedy as he could into his story about two lovely but unfortunate young people. Jamie (Gardiner) is a novelist, who has almost instantaneous success with his initial novel. Its first chapter is published in the Atlantic. Then it is picked up by Random House, after which nothing seems to stand in Jamie's way.

Cathy (Weaver) is an actress who has less success with her career. She goes to audition after audition, always getting turned down. Jamie is supportive of Cathy's career until the end, when he is unfaithful to her. But Brown is not as interested in analyzing the causes of the breakup as he is in illustrating the effects, through song.

Onstage
'The Last Five Years'
» Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
» When: Through April 28
» Info: $40 to $87; 703-820-9771; signature-theatre.org

Some of the numbers are slow, gentle ballads, some are jazzy and upbeat. Jamie gets two of the funniest, "Shiksa Goddess" and "The Schmuel Song," a hilarious klezmer number. All the songs are easy to listen to, even when the lyrics describe pain, for instance in Weaver's "Still Hurting," where her emotion from the breakup is raw.

Many productions of "The Last Five Years" seem to be the staging of a concept, a clever idea, rather than the realization of an integral whole. But Posner has avoided that, in part by casting two intensely appealing actors, in part by playing up the simple love story behind the musical's structure. His two characters seem so dedicated to one another and to the marriage -- until its end -- that it's impossible not to feel their passion for each other. You just don't see them singing that passion to one another in duets.

"The Last Five Years" is subtly about the passage of time and how it affects love. Daniel Conway's set is composed of an apartment with high windows, a bed and a desk. A great curlicue of pages, interspersed with different kinds of clocks, swirls upward from the desk to the ceiling. It is a brilliant evocation of the passage of time.

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