Theatre Royal, Bath
Fifty Words completes Laurence Boswell's off-Broadway tour of the London fringe, via the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal in Bath. It complements Amy Herzog's 4,000 Miles at the Print Room and The American Plan by Richard Greenberg soon to be seen at the St James Theatre, giving us a varied sample of what is happening in New York today.
Playwright Michael Weller is probably best known on this side of the Atlantic for the film scripts of Hair and Ragtime, although he did pen What the Night is For, which brought Gillian Anderson to the West End a decade ago.
Like Jack Thorne's Mydidae, Fifty Words is an intense two-hander revealing what goes on in an ostensibly happy and loving marriage when the couple gets together behind closed doors.
The main thesis that Weller seems keen to promote is the old chestnut that love and hatred are little more than two sides of the same coin and it is possible to switch between them almost literally without knowing.
In this case, we are in the comfortable Brooklyn kitchen of Portland-born architect Adam and his IT-savvy businesswoman wife from a well-to-do Florida background, Janine. Simon Kenny's set presents a shallow thrust which has no real boundaries. As a result, it could leave those in the front row at the centre with the impression that they are not so much spectators as shell-shocked participators in what ensues.
Without giving the game away, as we meet them, both are at the kind of age where a midlife crisis could conceivably be in the offing.
The pair, who frequently find themselves separated by the vicissitudes of Adam's job, are celebrating their first night alone together in the nine years since the birth of their mildly autistic-sounding son Greg who, complete with family hamster, is enjoying his first ever sleepover with a newfound friend.
What ensues is not quite the romantic evening that a Chinese takeaway and expensive champagne promise.
Uncharacteristically, minor observations spark incipient violence, the tension building up until both participants and viewers will probably feel as if they have been involved in a heavyweight prize-fight that has gone the full fifteen rounds and left the sluggers dead on their feet.
The problems revolve around business, finances, compatibility, suspected infidelity, parenting, sex and memories, to name rather a lot. The truth is that while this is a well-written play that feels drawn directly from real life, one could easily conclude that Michael Weller has piled in a few too many obstacles in order to justify a 95-minute running time, where perhaps an hour would have been even more explosive.
Even so, with Clare Price and Richard Clothier giving their all with superbly convincing performances, this is a powerful, shocking and moving piece that deserves to be seen, even if it will put few smiles on faces.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher