Theater review: "Fifty Words" by Michael Weller

As Long As You Both Shall ...

As Long As You Both Shall ...

July 17, 2009|By GEORGE OLIVER

"Fifty Words" is a new play by Michael Weller. It is one of five plays performed this year at the 19th annual Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

The title of the play refers to the 50 words of the traditional marriage vows, especially -- as the character Jan points out to her husband Adam -- the phrase "forsaking all others."

In its evolving situation, Weller's two-character play about a contemporary urban marriage becomes a kind of 21st century version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," although Edward Albee might have envied Weller's free use of expletives and depictions of sexual situations.

As in Albee's play, "Fifty Words" has husband and wife saying things to each other that you wish sometimes they weren't, but it's a credit to the playwright that nothing sounds gratuitous. And while the wedding vows are not quoted, Jan and Adam's behavior mirrors the vows in all their hidden difficulties.


It is exactly this honesty that makes Weller's play so effective. We feel as if we are eavesdropping on a married couple's most intimate battles -- over sex, over their son's odd behavior, over their sometimes insensitive treatment of each other, and especially over the husband's infidelity. The Studio Theater's in-the-round arrangement makes the audience feel even more like rubberneckers at an marital accident.

Weller's script is at turns humorous, vicious and disquieting. On the night I saw the play, the audience, mostly middle-aged and older couples, seemed to understand quite well what was going on, and laughed as often out of squirmy discomfort as levity. But ultimately, the play is redemptive, as we watch the couple's passion for each other find some common ground amid the painful humor and turmoil.

Jan is played by Joey Parsons, and Adam by Anthony Crane. It is directed by the festival's founder and producing director, Ed Herendeen.

Crane made a convincing, randy-then-contrite husband, a combination of New York savvy, goofiness, and sensitivity -- too sensitive sometimes for his onstage wife. As Jan, Parsons was alternately vulnerable and icy, even sadistically controlling given her husband's revelation. When she says "our marriage is over" halfway through the play, you believe her and cringe along with Adam.

Crane and Parsons were mostly an ideal team throughout the evening, as the power shifted from husband to wife and back again. Opposites attract -- and repel.

The action takes place without intermission in the kitchen of a New York apartment. Food is actually prepared on stage, eaten and even thrown in anger. It's hard not to wonder if "consumption" was a theme of food and of lives.

A traditional romantic comedy this is not, although there are plenty of funny lines. So if you bring your spouse or significant other, be prepared for knowing nudges and sidelong glances from her or him.

And if you don't get what's happening on stage, well, just maybe, you haven't been together long enough.

"Fifty Words" is performed in the Studio Theater in the Sara Cree Building at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown through Aug. 2. See the CATF schedule for specific dates and times at .

George Oliver is a writer and editor who lives in Martinsburg, W.Va. He can be reached at

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