Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fifty Words


By Michael Weller. Dir. Austin Pendleton. MCC at the Lucille Lortel. (CLOSED)

Weller's new marital scrimmage drew raves for actors Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz, as an increasingly unhappy couple spending a long night's journey into day. But even critics who rated the production and actors highly were less sure about the play's merits, and some found it, as Daily News' Joe Dziemianowicz memorably put it, less a "roller coaster" than a "roller jerker."

(Michael Kuchwara) It's the fierce way this combative couple fight that propels Fifty Words, Michael Weller's blistering, highly theatrical examination of a husband and wife seeking to sort out and make sense of their life together. That theatricality is heightened by the casting of Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel as the vituperative partners. They are a pair of superb actors willing to take intense emotional and physical leaps into scary, take-no-prisoners territory.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) Marriage is no walk in the park in Fifty Words, Michael Weller's incisive closeup of the emotional battleground of contemporary relationships, in which most audiences with any experience of cohabitation—and any shred of honesty—will recognize themselves in either one or the other or perhaps both of the people who make up the couple onstage...Austin Pendleton's taut production for MCC referees gladiatorial performances from Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel that make it impossible to look away.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Under other circumstances the nonstop fighting and making up by making out might grow dangerously repetitive. But Weller's slashing writing reveals these characters' hot-blooded insides in a way that defuses familiarity, even when the issues between Jan and Adam take a sharper-than-ideal turn toward the prosaic.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) Although the dance-of-death setup is familiar by now...Weller's crisp, candid dialogue is an effective conflict-delivery system for Fifty Words's dynamic cast of two...Both actors clearly love their jobs. And it is this love, more than any other onstage, that keeps us engaged through Weller's 95 minutes of wedded blitz.

Curtain Up B+
(Elyse Sommer) With the divorce rate continuing to rise as fast as the national debt the subject of dysfunctional marriages is ever relevant, but that's not what makes Fifty Words a fresh and intense theatrical experience. The reason to see the MCC production is that Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel are sheer dynamite as the latest pair of battling spouses to veer from loving to biting conversation, from tender to more violent embraces, from mutual admiration to hurtful putdowns.

Theater News Online B+
(Matt Windman) Even if you find that Weller's text descends into melodrama or a traditional battle of the sexes, Austin Pendleton has staged a gripping production with two nuanced, naturalistic, occasionally violent performances by Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel.

New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) If Fifty Words is limited in scope, it also has a gimlet eye, providing meticulously chosen, artfully integrated details that let us understand why its characters so love and loathe each other...I don't know how engrossing I would have found this protracted apache dance if it hadn't been brought to such authentic and unsparing life by [Norbert Leo] Butz, [Elizabeth] Marvel and Mr. Pendleton.

NY Press B
(Mark Peikert) Elizabeth Marvel [is] having a ball on stage and dripping with venom and vulnerability as Jan in Michael Weller's new two-hander. Lobbing insults and projectiles at Norbert Leo Butz as her architect husband, Marvel's Jan grows from an overworked wife and mother into a woman exuding the cruel power of a heroine in a Greek tragedy.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) This is the sort of two-character acting display called a 'two-fister,' and in Michael Weller's 95-minute marriage tragedy, there really are fists...The actors are stupendous at delineating big and delicate mood swings. The problem is that, despite Marvel's courageous subtleties, Weller has stacked the deck against his female character. Everyone may be pretending that this is an even fight, but, as written, the wife is hateful.

Theatermania C+
(David Finkle) Were Elizabeth Marvel and Leo Norbert Butz [sic] not so fearless and Austin Pendleton's direction less ferocious, there would be little to say for MCC Theater's production...Weller writes convincing dialogue for two smart and accomplished people who know each other so well they can quickly locate every pushable button. But convincing dialogue doesn't necessarily equate with a convincing play. Underlying the vicious verbal and physical exchanges is the persistent but inaccurate belief that what constitutes a truly profound connection between a man and a woman is their ability to fight productively.

NY Post C
(Frank Scheck) The play never quite convinces, due to endless, quicksilver tonal shifts: This is one couple that can veer from post-coital bliss to brutal attacks within seconds. Under Austin Pendleton's sturdy direction, both actors deliver fiercely passionate and highly physical performances that go a long way toward overcoming the writing's rough patches, even though all that roughhousing makes you fear for their safety.

Back Stage C
(Gwen Orel) By turns truthful, bittersweet, and compelling, it's also flat, unsurprising, and not theatrical, except for an extended topless scene with elements of farce. For some, merely watching two characters played with commitment and courage by two fine actors battle it out, leaving no holds barred, will be more than enough. Others will demand a little bit more theatricality in the drama.

Village Voice C-
(Michael Feingold) Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz work in seemingly opposite ways...but their dueling approaches make this aesthetic sparring match far more riveting than the one in Weller's chronicle of one worst-case night in a failed marriage. Though, as usual, some of the scenic detours in his dialogue are intriguing, Weller's script is basically just another spousal-recrimination fiesta; you might describe it as the all-biped remake of Albee's The Goat—a work in which Marvel and Butz might get juicier results.

NJ Star-Ledger C-
(Michael Sommers) Believably navigating the drama's physical and emotional demands, Marvel and Butz skillfully illuminate their characters' contrasting senses of misery. Yet for all of the conversational ease of Weller's dialogue, the play's situation and development look contrived. Perhaps worse, the characters—particularly the madly ambivalent Janine—are basically dreary people whom viewers are unlikely to root for.

Daily News D
(Joe Dzeimianowicz) You could call the performance a roller coaster, but that suggests an exhilarating experience. This is a roller jerker, lurching from one emotion to the next over the course of 95 minutes, doubling back, negating what's just been said or done. If it's meant to be a slice of realism, a smog of artificiality constantly hangs over the play...Butz and Marvel are excellent actors, but are ultimately hamstrung by the material.

Bloomberg News F
(John Simon) Why do two accomplished actors and one multitalented director...go for this stuff? Because it lends itself to an unbridled display of acting and directing exercises...If histrionics were drama, Fifty Words could run forever.

AP A 13; Variety A- 12; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; Time Out NY B+ 11; Curtain Up B+ 11; Theater News Online B+ 11; New York Times B 10; NY Press B 10; Newsday B- 9; Theatermania C+ 8; NY Post C 7; Back Stage C 7; Village Voice C- 6; NJ Star-Ledger C- 6; Daily News D 4; Bloomberg News F 1; TOTAL: 137 / 16 = 8.56 (B-)

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