In Michael Weller’s new play Fifty Words, Jan and Adam are in their Brooklyn brownstone reveling in the freedom of their first night home alone in nine years without their son, Greg. While this might be a time for great passion, it also leads to years of built-up tension finally being revealed.
Adam states that “There is no stress in Brooklyn tonight,” but the audience knows that is not true. At the beginning of the play we see two characters who seem to be excited at the idea of being home alone, but at the same time stop themselves from saying certain things and keep at a distance from each other. A simmer has started and we are just waiting for the pot to boil over. What boils over is an evening of failed dreams, difficult challenges, and disappointments, all of which contribute to the unraveling of this middle class marriage.
The play reminds us of domestic classics by Strindberg, O’Neill, and Albee, but what it specifically focuses on is how love is many things, all at the same time. The show’s title comes from Jan’s suggestion that there should be 50 words for love, the way Eskimos have so many words for snow. The play weaves through emotional extremes, all grounded in Jan and Adam’s desire to connect and find meaning in their marriage and their lives.
While Weller’s dialogue is clean and sharp, the real strength is in the performances by Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz. They are led by the direction of Austin Pendleton, who juxtaposes fast-paced dialogue with long pauses to let the audience reflect and transition deeper into the evening. The subtle shifts of time are aided greatly by the lighting of Michelle Habeck. Neil Patel’s set design is clean and concise, and Mimi O’Donnell's costumes fit the story. Josh Schmidt wrote the original music, and Fitz Patton created the sound.
Fifty Words By Michael Weller; with Norbert Leo Butz (Adam) and Elizabeth Marvel (Jan); directed by Austin Pendleton; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Mimi O’Donnell; lighting by Michelle Habeck; original music by Josh Schmidt; sound by Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Pamela Edington. Presented by the MCC Theater, At the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village; (212) 279-4200. EXTENDED through Nov. 8. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.