The Last Five Years: Passing in the night 

A relationship crumbles over time

When relationships fail, only the most candid individuals will admit it when it's their fault. Most probably cling to a more flattering version of the truth, and fall back on excuses like, "It was a mutual thing."

Jason Robert Brown's postmodern musical The Last Five Years, currently playing at Actor's Express, leaves little doubt as to who's to blame. Tracking a relationship from its bitter end to its joyous beginning, The Last Five Years unmistakably finds fault with young novelist Jamie (Jonathan MacQueen), as the play begins when he's just ended his marriage to struggling actress Cathy (Natasha Drena). Directed by Kate Warner of Dad's Garage Theatre, The Last Five Years laces even its happiest moments with pain and amounts to an insightfully written, delicately performed bummer.

You can't discuss the musical without describing its structure in detail. Following Cathy's heartbroken solo "Still Hurting," the point of view switches to Jamie at the beginning of the relationship as he sings the thrilled "Shiksa Goddess" to an unseen Cathy. The play alternates between the two, as he goes forward in time and she goes back, until he's the one who's sour and gloomy, and she's vivacious and in love. The songs are all solos until they "meet" in show's midpoint for their wedding and sing for the first and essentially only time in the show.

A unique and affecting musical, The Last Five Years also feels innately depressing and hamstrung by its premise. Even if you could separate your prior knowledge of the couple's fate from the most exuberant songs, the fact that Jamie and Cathy are nearly always alone on stage conveys a sense of isolation and futility about relationships. The couple seems to achieve true togetherness in the moving duet "The Next Ten Minutes," but the moment is heartbreakingly fleeting.

If the musical presented the couple as equally at fault, The Last Five Years could have benefited from a more richly complex "he said/she said" dynamic. As it is, because we know Jamie is the more problematic partner in the marriage, we tend to view him with suspicion and Cathy with sympathy throughout the show. Maybe if we didn't know how the relationship ends, we wouldn't notice that in the seemingly rapturous "Shiksa Goddess," Jamie emphasizes Cathy's lack of Jewishness and his family's inevitable reaction more than any of her own attributes.

Possibly the best thing you can say in the character's defense is that, as a phenomenally successful young author (he's 23 years old at the play's chronological start), Jamie's probably unready for any long-term commitment.

It helps that MacQueen comes across as a likable, sensitive performer with a casual but forceful singing style. Jamie could easily be portrayed as an insufferable jerk, but the actor makes him, I guess, a sufferable jerk. Drena keeps Cathy from appearing as a passive victim, with her best moments coming in the witty songs about her troublesome acting career, "Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence" and the showstopper "The Summer in Ohio." I found a harshness in her high notes during her early numbers, but that may simply reflect the intensity and sadness of the songs' content.

"The Summer in Ohio" intentionally tweaks old-fashioned show tunes, but Brown gives Jamie's numbers the inflections of rock music, sort of like the way Rent reveals a pop/rock influence without quite sounding like rock. The Last Five Years affirms Brown as a leading musical talent of his generation. (Incidentally, he wrote the music for Parade, the Leo Frank musical by former Atlantan Alfred Uhry.) Just be forewarned that The Last Five Years is the kind of show that leaves you more with a sense of despair than a song in your heart.

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