It’s difficult to be close friends with both halves of a couple, because you become the ultimate Third Wheel; you are, in fact, the Third Wheel incarnate. The best case scenario for the Third Wheel is that your friends develop a rewarding, long term relationship, in which case you either lose two friends simultaneously or at least re-contextualizing both friendships forever; ‘let’s all go out’ replaces ‘wanna grab a drink’ in the buddy lexicon.
The worst case scenario is that the relationship fails, and you, the noble Third Wheel, rattle along your crooked path of awkward lunch dates and uncomfortable implications, which leaves you with a choice: to tether yourself to just one buddy for a while, which is terrible but easy, or to toe the line between both aggrieved parties like a unicycle on a tripwire.
To be an audience member in Split Stage Productions’ The Last Five Years is to be that Third Wheel. The lovelorn musical opens with an introduction to Jamie (Josh List), an ambitious author skyrocketing towards stardom, who meets Cathy (Emily Hamilla), his “Shiksa Goddess,” and consequently becomes enamored. Meanwhile, on stage right and five years later, Cathy is alone in her bedroom in a state of devastation – Jamie has left her. The musical continues in this fashion, whiplashing us from one far point on the linear timeline of their relationship towards another until both characters finally meet in the middle – literally, they meet in at the play’s midpoint center stage. It is the only sequence in the play in which both characters interact physically with one another.
If it sounds heavy, that’s because it kind of is, though the show’s author Jason Robert Brown strikes a tone that’s more ‘what shall be, shall be’ than ‘wherefore art thou.’ List’s Jamie is a wrecking ball of friendly confidence. He carries the character with sheer posi-vibe charisma. Jamie is always on the up-and-up, and even his fantasies of infidelity, which (hilariously) drew a fractured response of chuckles and shifting seats from the audience, waft by like a joke about the weather because of the actor’s charm.
Cathy, meanwhile, is an aspiring actress with a lot more to lose, and she has gained little. Hamilla’s depiction of Cathy’s professional anxiety is dynamic, stumbling, and human. Through Cathy we see the harsh realities of the audition room treadmill: the hours spent memorizing scripts, the casual indifference of casting directors who wave actors away mid-line, and the dawning realization that there are at least a hundred identical actors in the room with her, all the same – except, of course, some are younger and “have already been to the gym.” For Cathy, finding a career in the arts is a struggle to be overcome, a last ditch effort in which she must grasp at the tiniest precipice of success for fear of the fall. Seeing Jamie laugh along on an escalator to the wealth and fame is understandably (if not unfairly) a point of contention in their relationship.
Split Stage Production imbues The Last Five Years with so much earnest energy and warmth that it almost (almost) washed the bad taste of last year’s similarly themed musical La La Land out of my mouth. Both Hamilla and List are onstage at any given moment, one living out a painful memory in front of our eyes while the other is placed in the blissful reverie of a first date, or a Christmas spent under a shared blanket. Laura Wurzell directs her performers to behave as people do, and they are therefore tender, or too chipper, or caught in a frustrating cycle of their own glum mythos. A quartet composed of J. Eric Barchiesi, Larissa Marple, Dave Minda and Matt Peterson, performs an hour of live music, giving The Last Five Years a palpable urgency.
While the rom-com melodramatic appeal of The Last Five Years‘ narrative structure is apparent, there is a telling detail in my plot synopsis up there – the play begins with Cathy, not Jamie. In the haze of my memory I’d forgotten this detail, but for a good reason; even without searching around the playbill, it’s fairly obvious The Last Five Years was written by its male protagonist, and that the play has an unambiguous authorial lens.
Jamie’s role in his own crumbling relationship is too neat, too easily forgiven for me to believe him, and the moments in which he actually falters barely register on the drama scale. Cathy, meanwhile, who sabotages Jamie’s happiness by instigating fights before major events in his life, is another story. She brings a wellspring of hurt she’s chosen to weaponize against her own relationship, and she is therefore directly culpable in its downfall in a way Jamie just isn’t. Even the play’s structure, which puts Jamie on the forward-end of the timeline and Cathy at the reverse, forces the narrative at first to be a mystery about how Jamie could be so happy to meet his “Shiksa” only for things to end badly, to a tragedy in which Jamie must make an awful decision while Cathy sits happily lovelorn on the other end of the stage. Without additional context, The Last Last Years may as well be called “My Ex-Wife Can’t Handle How Attractive and Successful I Am.”
Yet, List’s Jamie occasionally is driven by jolts of rage during arguments that speak to a larger problem of self-expression in the character; his performance revealed more dimensions to Jamie than the script does. I suppose there’s a certain meta-narrative quality to undermine from the contrast between the real and the supposed as presented here, but much of that will take place outside of the theater.
As I left the Theater Factory to reflect on the time I’d spent as Cathy and Jamie’s willing third wheel – as I weighed the qualities of each person, their actions, their disparate stories – I couldn’t help but feel I’d been affixed to the wrong bicycle. I felt moved, yes, and I wanted to go along for the ride – but still. I had this lingering feeling that I should give my other buddy a call.
The Last Five Years runs at the Theatre Factory through February 3rd. For tickets and more information click here.