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January 25, 2012

Everyman Theatre explores marital crisis in (more than) 'Fifty Words'

The daily dust-ups between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich pale in comparison to the battle scenes being played out with considerable force on the stage of Everyman Theatre.

Michael Weller’s recent drama “Fifty Words” focuses unflinchingly on a married couple, Jan and Adam, who have to face something formidable in their Brooklyn brownstone — a night entirely alone.

It’s the first such night since their son was born nine years earlier; the boy, having finally made a friend, is away on a sleep-over. This leaves the parents with a lot of time, if not each other, to kill.

Adam, a moderately successful architect, decides an amorous romp with his wife is in order, before he has to leave for another business trip in the morning. But Jan seems terribly preoccupied, both with left-over work related to her start-up business and with her absent child, who has developed a distinctive way of hiding under his own troubles.

Before long, the spring-loaded spouses uncover any number of suspicions, resentments and long-avoided truths.

“It’ll sting; I can’t help that,” Adam says to Jan at one point, treating a fresh cut on her foot after one of their rounds.

That’s nothing compared to the emotional wounds inflicted on both people before the night is over, more wounds than could ever properly heal. Recalling earlier conflicts, Adam tells his wife: “We were just learning how to hurt each other back then. We were amateurs.”

They are professionals now.

Everyone knows some seemingly incompatible mates who are nonetheless bound together. Marriages can be complex, as theater-goers already know well from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In that drama, George and Martha reveal an uncanny ability to goad and ensnare each other. Their weapon — or refuge — of choice is booze, so much easier than sex.

For Adam and Jan, physical intimacy is the trap, and has been from the day they met. They have developed ...

additional buttons to push — the compliment that sounds like a put-down, for example. When they spar, the result is not pretty. But it does make for absorbing and (like Albee again) sometimes surprisingly funny, theater.

“Fifty Words” has its share of creaking plot devices. And the reliance on a succession of bombshell revelations begins to feel formulaic. The play begins to feel long, too, since Weller repeats some of his points along the way and pads some of the dialogue.

Still, the material has an undeniable edge that often slices close to the bone as it seeks a key to the essence of that slippery thing called love — “There should be fifty words for it,” Jan says, “like Eskimos have for snow.”

The Everyman production, directed with a sure hand by Donald Hicken, digs into this unflinching dissection of fidelity, responsibility and parenting with two of the company’s regular stars, Clinton Brandhagen and Megan Anderson.

Brandhagen, a consistently dependable actor, creates a finely shaded portrayal of Adam. He persuasively conveys the character’s shifts between crude and sexy, oblivious and sensitive, angry and humorous (he makes a little moment early on, when Adam imitates a long-winded phone call from Jan’s mother in St. Augustine, not just amusing, but endearing).

Anderson effectively mines the unsympathetic side of Jan, with a hardness of demeanor and delivery from the get-go. It takes a little too long for the actress to reveal the softer elements, the qualities that would help explain the bond with Adam.

But Anderson ultimately opens enough of a window into this complex figure, who fears ending up “like one of those old couples you see in restaurants staring into space, chewing, nothing left to say.”

Given how much is simmering inside Jan and Adam, it’s fitting that the action unfolds entirely in their kitchen. Designer Tim Mackabee has fashioned a contemporary a space that is not so chicly stylish as to make Adam seem like a big architectural star, just comfortable and individual enough.

Above all, the long, narrow stage reflects how the characters, in so many ways, have become so terribly confined.

"Fifty Words" runs through Feb. 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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