At the moment Jamie meets Cathy, she already has lost him. That’s the time-bending conceit of Jason Robert Brown’s terrific little musical, “The Last Five Years,” newly opened at A.C.T. in San Francisco. Brown tells the tale, mostly in song, of a relationship — backward from her point of view, forward from his. Simultaneously. A little confusing at first but you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to catch on quickly.
Tony-Award-winning composer-playwright Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County,” “Parade”) has taken a rather cynical approach to love, seeing the end at the very beginning — as things often happen — turning the simple story of a boy-meets-girl romance and marriage into something rather more interesting than a more linear account. The show, which premiered in, of all places, Skokie, Ill. (this reviewer’s old beat) in 2001, went on to an off-Broadway run and has reportedly been an underground hit at regional theaters across the country ever since. With a terrific cast of two, deftly directed by Michael Berresse, its future looks bright at A.C.T. Or maybe we should say its past. Whatever.
Jamie, played by the engaging Zak Resnick, is something of a wunderkind, his first novel snatched up by a major publisher at the age of 23. He’s energetic, ambitious and pretty impressed with himself. You gotta love the guy. Cathy (Margo Seibert), on the other hand, is a so-so theatrical wannabe, schlepping to auditions between temp jobs and working summer stock in Ohio from time to time. She doesn’t have a lot of confidence but, with Jamie relentlessly pushing her, keeps plugging away.
The two performers are really good; theatrically it doesn’t matter if they are well-matched, as they have only two duets out of the show’s 14-odd songs. Seibert can be a belter but she is at something of a disadvantage as her story begins with her anger and disappointment (“Still Hurting”) and progresses slowly to her joy at having met this terrific guy. So you tend to mark her down as a complainer. Resnick, on the other hand, is ebullient from the start and, frankly, has been given some of the best songs, including the hilarious “Shiksa Goddess” and the charming “Schmuel Song” (yes, the show has a definite Jewish component, which is probably why it was such a hit in Skokie).
Success changes things and, before long, the newly married Jamie is looking at the pretty girls at the literary parties he thrives on (and Cathy avoids). Eventually he ends up in bed with one of them (“Nobody Needs to Know”) and the already unraveling marriage falls into shreds. Now it is Jamie who is bitter (“I Could Never Rescue You”). He leaves a note and his wedding ring on the dining room table, just as a newly love-struck Cathy warbles “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” That there will be no tomorrow for this couple is for us to know and them to find out.
It’s all pretty cool, playing out on Tim Mackabee’s sleek, spare stunner of a set. Six unseen musicians accompany Brown’s songs, which run a pleasant-enough gamut from upbeat to heart-rending. His lyrics, on the other hand, are pretty terrific, and you can see why he was called in to replace Stephen Sondheim on “Parade.” The show clocks in at an intermission-less 90 minutes, just about right for a millennial attention span, but you still have to pay close attention to the direction in which that time flows. An interesting theatrical exercise.