How excited can you get about the prospect of watching a cute but troubled couple unravel on stage and to the strains of some belt-it-out off-Broadway songsmithing, no less? Before you answer, you may want to take into account the narrative kink The Last Five Years has in store. In this chronology-twisting take on the two-hankie genre currently in the thick of its Central Florida premiere at the Winter Park Playhouse each of the sadder-but-wiser lovebirds gets an individual chance to revisit their doomed romance via music and monologue. The kicker is that he relates the story from its beginning to its conclusion; she starts at the end and works backward, disclosing key information in regressive snippets of domestic discord.
So when we first see Catherine Hiatt (Erin Romero), she's standing at stage left singing a tale of woe, having just received a Dear Joan letter from husband Jamie Wellerstein (Jacob Haines). Just what happened to put the kibosh on their five-year relationship is the Great Unknown that drives the musical. Jamie's subsequent entrance at stage right plucks him from her past as a figure of youthful promise, attired in a suede jacket and bell-bottoms and gazing off into the distance, one leg up on a strategically placed riser. (A portrait of the artist as young catalog model, this stiff-collared setup is typical of the production's tendency toward the static.) Catherine pours her heart out in the opening number, pining for her now-vanished fella in a voice that wraps itself around the tune's odd changes in tonality and holds on with dogged tenacity. Actress Romero possesses a perfectly respectable set of pipes, though her delivery is a few dBs too loud for the small room and produces a harsh honk when she cranks things up to full blast.
Catherine, we learn, is an actress whose professional development didn't keep pace with Jamie's career of providing written fodder for The Atlantic Monthly and the nation's bookstore bins. That's the most tangible reason playwright Jason Robert Brown offers for their eventual estrangement, though the remembered vignettes through which each character cycles reveal a bigger problem: Jamie is a narcissistic jerk with a roving eye. He's simply less sympathetic than Catherine, who merely comes across as plain old neurotic. (One Christmas, he writes her an original story as a present. Oooooh, that asshole!) Jamie's antisocial qualities are somewhat muted by actor Haines' clean-cut good looks, though his walking-head-shot appearance is hard to associate with anything especially writerly. There's more soul in the smooth blue notes he wrings out of the show's more mournful melodies; he's clearly more in his element there than in the upper registers, where his overtaxed voice emits a strange sort of yodel.
With one story going one way and the other approaching in the opposite direction, we're due for a head-on collision sometime. It happens in a highly anticipated proposal scene that finds the two lovers exchanging matrimonial promises aboard a boat. This all-important meeting the only time the two characters interact should crackle with energy, but Romero and Haines barely seem to recognize each other's presence. It's as if director Roy Alan spent so much time coaching them individually that he neglected to make sure they retained some chemistry as a team.
A lack of adequate follow-through pervades The Last Five Years, which for an outrageous adult ticket price of $28 affords no more elaborate an experience than a two-person cast singing to the accompaniment of an offstage piano while posing against minimal set dressings that are reused with thrifty consistency. The frequent movement of the curtains intrudes noisily on the actors' vocalizing, and only the last row of the seating area is raised. Shorties had better hope that taller theatergoers just happen to place themselves in the back to preserve the fragile sight lines.
Beneath the semiprofessional blandness of the production, however, lurks the show's real problem, and it's one fixed squarely in the script: For all its melodic zing, this is an unmistakably cruel piece of theater. Replaying anyone's relationship out of order is bound to make him or her look like a buffoon; the pleasure being indulged here is that of espying the car crash of Jamie and Catherine's relationship from a position of knowing safety.
The final scene finds her in the exact same stage-right position he held upon on his entrance. Having doubletracked back to square one of their courtship, she's reached an identical state of blissful ignorance.
"If only they had known then what they know now," the superiority-drunk audience member is supposed to cluck. But as Peanuts' pint-sized philosopher Linus once observed, "What do I know now?"