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Oy, Gevalt!: Twilight of the Shiksa Goddesses

Ed Rampell: The Last Five Years is sort of La La Land set in Manhattan, instead of Hollywood, although this musical by multi-Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown actually opened Off-Broadway about 15 years before Damien Chazelle’s movie was released.
Last Five Years

Natalie Storrs and Devin Archer (Photos: Nick Lamont)

THE LAST FIVE YEARS THEATRE REVIEW

The Last Five Years is sort of La La Land set in Manhattan, instead of Hollywood, although this musical by multi-Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown actually opened Off-Broadway about 15 years before Damien Chazelle’s movie was released. Brown’s two-hander is about the romance and troubled marriage in New York of aspiring actress/singer Catherine (Natalie Storrs) and novelist Jamie (Devin Archer), who are both in their early twenties when they have their cute meet.

The trouble is Five’s characters and their motivations seem inherently incredible. The presentation of the story of their relationship doesn’t help - it seems disjointed and out of chronological order, which increases the confusion as to why they ever coupled up to begin with. As I recall, the supposed lovers only have one duet - an enchanting Central Park interlude, including a rowboat and petals falling onstage and onscreen, that is a visual feast beautifully rendered by scenic designer Stephen Gifford and video designer Keith Skretch. But the rest of the songs are all solos, with the non-singer either not onstage at all or slinking off to a corner somewhere. It is the mise-en-scène of solitude, not solidarity, and why these two ever got two-gether in the first place is more mysterious than the plot of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

One doesn’t have a clue as to what Catherine sees in Jamie, who is more self-absorbent than Bounty paper towels and reasonably handsome (just as she is reasonably pretty). There is no evidence presented onstage whatsoever that Jamie has the insight and depth of character to be a writer. Unlike the great 2016 film Genius, about Maxwell Perkins and the scribes he edited, particularly Thomas Wolfe, little rings true about Five’s depiction of an author and the literary life, which focuses on Jamie’s readings, soirees and dabbling with groupies - but no on, you know, actually doing any writing.

Last Five Years

When The Atlantic accepts his (presumably) short story for publication, in addition to Jamie’s rate of pay what he’s most gleeful about is that the magazine doesn’t request a rewrite. The supposed wordsmith is rarely, if ever, shown in the actual act of writing per se, although to be fair, Catherine might describe her husband’s creative process in a song or two. In one scene, however, Jamie verbalizes through song his tale about a tailor in the old country that sounds similar to, say, Shalom Aleichem’s Eastern Europe-set Yiddish folk stories.

If what Catherine sees in this narcissist is mystifying, the aforementioned shtetl story he sings reveals what attracts the Jewish Jamie to her - namely, that she is not a Jew. In an early song that’s supposed to be cutesy he repeatedly refers to Catherine as a “shiksa goddess.” It seems that Catherine’s main attractive attribute to the Bar Mitzvah boy he expresses disdain for Jewish girls is that she is a gentile.

Oh goy! Oy vey! As a Jew I found this to be incredibly offensive, if not anti-Semitic. This is an old saw that Philip Roth made a literary career out of, including as recently as last year’s film adaptation of Indignation (which was excellent, BTW). Usually, the so-called shiksa goddess is a WASPy blonde beauty (although Storrs is brunette), epitomized by model-turned-actress Cybill Shepherd in the 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid, written by Neil Simon and directed by Elaine May. As I remember, Charles Grodin portrayed Lenny, a young Jewish man who marries Lila, a stereotypical “J.A.P.” (this insulting term referred to the so-called “Jewish American Princess”), played by poor Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter who was mercilessly mocked. At Miami during their honeymoon - their honeymoon, mind you!!! - Lenny dumps Lila to obsessively pursue the gentile Kelly (Shepherd, the former Glamour magazine cover girl). This theme of the Jewish male yearning for and lusting after the Christian female (BTW, notice that Black women, who are rarely Jewish, are never considered to be shiksa goddesses) is such a recurring trope that The Heartbreak Kid was remade in 2007, starring Ben Stiller, and, as noted is a major plot point in this revival of Five.

Last Five Years

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The other thing that attracts 23-year-old Jamie to Catherine is that, like him, she is an aspiring artist. However, in vignettes that recur during Five Catherine has a series of disappointing if not disastrous auditions and fails to win the part in a major show - except, perhaps, a role that is very Off-Off-Broadway: Onstage at that theatrical hotspot of Ohio. In doing so, Brown - who wrote Five’s lyrics and composed its music - may be making a clever inside joke about Leonard Bernstein and company’s classic Wonderful Town, which was recently revived at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Five reverses the trajectory of Wonderful Town’s wannabe Broadway performer Eileen Sherwood, who croons with her sister Ruth the memorable lines: “Why oh why oh why oh, Why did I ever leave Ohio?”

Upon returning to New York Catherine may have been singing the Sherwood sisters’ song. There is little memorable, however, about Brown’s lyrics or show tunes, which didn’t cause this reviewer to tap his tootsies and hum the musical’s melodies on his way out the door. In any case, as Jamie (for some strange reason) finds the success that eludes Catherine, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his wife and her failures, as well as her perceived lack of support by refusing to attend soirees, readings, etc. Why this shallow lad entered into a state of monogamous matrimony at such a young age is hard to fathom, and Five doesn’t provide us with any answers (other than Catherine’s lack of Jewish genetics and “traits”, that is).

Any marriage based on the ethnic pedigree of one’s spouse is inevitably doomed to the divorce court scrapheap. Soon enough, with his celebrity looming, Jamie finds the literary groupies available to him more appealing and alluring than the fact that his wife isn’t Jewish, and Catherine is downgraded to an obstacle standing in the way of groupie-dom.

(BTW, my point isn’t that people should “stick to your own kind” - as Anita sings in West Side Story, which opens April 21 at La Mirada Theatre - but rather that a potential partner’s ethnicity or religion shouldn’t be the determining factor in choosing or excluding mates. Jamie’s delusions about his shiksa godhead indicate how dubious that proposition is.)

Last Five Years

Having said all this, the way Brown’s saga is told is quite creatively rendered by the cast, crew and director Nick DeGruccio. Like opera, every single word is sung; there is no recitative, let alone spoken dialogue per se. The songs are all performed well and the live music is pleasant, with musical director Brent Crayon ably presiding over a six piece band ensconced in the orchestra pit.

Although the musical’s structure made it a bit hard for me to follow, the nonlinear unfolding of events is imaginative, as it was in the 2009 rom-com 500 Days of Summer. Five’s projection design, against a full screen and a tile pattern, is imaginatively executed by Mssrs. Gifford and Skretch, giving the 80-minute-or-so play a distinctive look. In one clever scene, when Catherine has a lucid moment she sings about her egotistical husband and how it’s “all about Jamie,” while the screens light up with different photos of the self-indulgent scribbler. Overall, Five’s inventive form enhances the one-acter’s contents, and what I found to be most captivating about this La La Land on the Hudson.

The Last Five Years is being performed 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays through Feb. 12 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: www.lamiradatheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell