“You made it to Ohio. Who knows where else we can go?” sings Cathy (Erin Weaver) toward the beginning of The Last Five Years, Signature Theatre’s moving, neatly staged production of the cult 2001 musical by Jason Robert Brown (currently also enjoying a revival at New York’s Second Stage Theatre). As statements go, it isn’t the greatest endorsement of the Buckeye State, but it isn’t the greatest endorsement of Cathy’s husband, Jamie (James Gardiner), either. Al Jolson famously boasted he’d walk a million miles for one of Mammy’s smiles; Jamie can barely be bothered to catch a redeye from Manhattan to the Midwest to save his marriage.
Herein lies the interesting conflict in The Last Five Years, whose two characters meet only once, in the middle of the play. (Jamie’s story goes chronologically from the beginning of his relationship with Cathy to the end; Cathy’s starts with the heartbreaking ballad “Still Hurting” and progresses backward to her cheerily hopeful “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” at the end.) Cathy is without a doubt the sympathetic one—so much so that I’d wager my life savings nobody in the history of theater has ever pondered silk-screening a “Team Jamie” T-shirt. Cathy struggles through bad auditions, summers taking acting jobs in Ohio, and a marriage in which everyone (including her husband) is obsessed with her husband. Jamie finds success as a prodigy novelist at 23 and never stops congratulating himself for it.
Even with the sweet-faced, charming (if sometimes hyperactive) Gardiner playing Jamie, the disconnect between the two characters is hard to bridge. Director Aaron Posner, who pulled together The Last Five Years in what feels like the last five minutes after his planned production of Crimes of the Heart at Signature was canceled, has created a lovely production in record speed from a show that doesn’t have a lot of heft to it. Weaver, Posner’s real-life wife, is winsome and effortlessly engaging as Cathy, belting out some numbers with perhaps even more emotion and heart than Sherie Rene Scott did in the original run. But with the characters apart for the overwhelming majority of the brief show, there’s no chance for them to build chemistry, or to convince the audience they once had a profound connection.
Still, Brown’s songs are heartfelt, and the six-part orchestra seen through a drape behind the stage complements them nicely. Daniel Conway’s set provides a number of doors and windows through which the two actors can brush past each other or stand on opposite sides of the stage, and the symbolism has a nice poignancy to it. Above the stage, a large spiral construction features clocks (all set to 9:15) and various letters scrawled on paper, which doesn’t necessarily offer much insight and is for the most part underused. Kathleen Geldard dresses Cathy in a series of frumpy-chic cardigans and Jamie in the plaid shirt/hoodie uniform of twentysomethings everywhere.
The couple are oh-so-relatable, as well they should be—The Last Five Years is based on the breakdown of Brown’s own marriage, and if anyone can portray what it’s like to be married to a writer, it’s Weaver. Posner’s portrait of a marriage in dissolution (and a relationship origin story) is a sincere, pleasantly engaging production, and some of the structural problems with Brown’s story are lessened by Weaver’s genuinely absorbing performance, itself worth the price of admission.
The Last Five Years is at Signature Theatre through April 28. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($29 to $82) are available via Signature’s website.