Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Constant Wife and Last Five Years

My review of The Constant Wife and Last Five Years appears in this week's WE.
Nicole Underhay and Ted Cole in Arts Club’s The Constant Wife, and (inset) Naomi Dayneswood and Jesse Donaldson in the failed-marriage musical, The Last Five Years.

Nicole Underhay and Ted Cole in Arts Club’s The Constant Wife, and (inset) Naomi Dayneswood and Jesse Donaldson in the failed-marriage musical, The Last Five Years.

Two very different plays sift through the rubble of crumbling marriages

Love (or something like it) is in the air on Vancouver stages right now, as relationship-themed plays compete for a little piece of your heart. It’s almost unfair that The Last Five Years, a small-scale Broadway musical (fighting against an uneven script), finds itself pitted against the witty and wonderful words of Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife. That, and Years’ tired depiction of a woman in love, feels so painfully passé when compared to the balls-out equality of Wife’s fierce females.

Wife, set in the 1930s (as depicted in a beautiful set from Ken MacDonald), unleashes its characters from conventional behaviour — these are rich people who play by a different set of rules — and tackles the three big Fs: fidelity, feminism, and fortune. Constance (a perfectly cast and sparkling Nicole Underhay) and John (Ted Cole) have been married for 15 years when rumours surface of John’s affair with Constance’s best friend, Marie-Louise Durham (Celine Stubel does the chirpy strumpet with aplomb). When Constance’s former suitor comes back into the picture, all hell breaks loose, and Constance proves that she’s no silent, suffering spouse.

Wife has been hailed by Variety as the precursor to Sex and the City, and it’s true, in that the women in Wife rule the stage. Martha (Moya O’Connell) is Constance’s self-righteous younger sister and a spinster, and both women are stifled by their brutally witty mother, Mrs. Culver (a divine Bridget O’Sullivan), a rich old woman whose words carry the same blunt force as a blow from a sledgehammer.

The bon mots and one-liners are delivered with sophistication, and director Morris Panych brings out the best in Maugham’s catty and astute asides. Panych also digs into the source material to hit the nail on the head of some of today’s taboos: seeking satisfaction outside of the marital bed, embarking on an open relationship, and seeing women as equals.

Women fair less well in The Last Five Years, a musical written by Jason Robert Brown and based on his own failed marriage. Jamie (Jesse Donaldson, vacillating between winning and annoying) and Cathy (bright spot Naomi Dayneswood) meet in their early twenties, fall in love, get married, and eventually break up over the course of five years, with each song representing a different stage in their relationship. Jamie’s gaining some major success as a new best-selling author, while Cathy’s doing summer theatre in Ohio and failing to get her big break as an actress.

Jamie’s story arc moves from first meeting to breakup, while Cathy’s tale starts at the breakup and moves backward to the couple’s first meeting. It’s an interesting conceit, but one that allows each characters’ flaws too much room to breathe, making it difficult to muster prolonged sympathy for either side. Simplistic characters — Jamie is the jerk who disappears, leaving only a Dear John letter; Cathy is the needy wife who’s hung her star in someone else’s sky — don’t help matters either. The Last Five Years is like watching friends who have no business being together break up for an hour and a half. You want to give them both a shake and then go get a drink.

As the audience traverses both sides of the story, certain songs allow for moments of genuine heart to shine through. “The Schmuel Song” shows a softer side of Jamie as he makes up a Christmas story for Cathy to encourage her self-esteem. “I Can Do Better Than That” shows some of the fire Cathy used to have, declaring she’s not looking for the proverbial white picket fence and desires a more complete life.

Many of Cathy’s songs paint her as a woman who is insecure, defined solely by her relationship with Jamie. (Brown’s former wife, on whom Cathy is based, threatened legal action if certain songs weren’t changed.) Conversely, Jamie’s songs are mostly self-involved, alternating between falling for Cathy and his burgeoning success as an author. Donaldson’s got a charismatic presence, but he does little work to keep Jamie’s cartoonish ego in check; his Jamie is prone to plenty of pelvic thrusts and rock-star antics. Dayneswood’s Cathy is appropriately sad and pathetic, but she infuses the character with lovely doses of defiance and vigour.

We should connect with the broken people singing sad songs in The Last Five Years, but the heart loves who it wants — and the women of The Constant Wife are irresistible: mind games, manipulation and all. After all, who among us would choose a bittersweet break-up tale when there’s the tartly delicious story of sweet revenge waiting in the wings?

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