50 Words at GableStage explores ordinary tragedies
Michael Weller's 50 Words elicits laughs from its GableStage audience by staging two particular situations. The first and most common finds the play's two characters — Jan and Adam, a struggling professional couple in Brooklyn — saying fantastically hurtful things to each other. "You're weak," says Jan (Erin Joy Schmidt) — or something to that effect; I cannot be exact, because I was too enthralled by the play to take my usual notes. "I'm sorry, honey," says Adam (Gregg Weiner). "I guess to bag a man with the big balls you desire, you'd have to be a woman with at least some semblance of sexual allure." Ouch! We laugh at this probably because Jan has it coming and because Adam has delivered it so smoothly. It's a clean blow severing mouth from ego, leaving the former to gasp as the latter bleeds. In a similar situation — and we've been there — most of us aren't lucky enough to have our barbs handcrafted by a Drama Desk Award winner.
The second, less common situation produces a lighter laugh — more a knowing titter — especially from the aged members of the audience. The titter is elicited not so much by any particular line as by the sudden recognition of elements seemingly excavated from the oubliettes of our own relationships. The pileup of subtle digs, the half-stated premises dangling in the air, the camel-esque groans of the onstage domestics as they festoon each other with straw — it's anybody's guess whether they sense the imminent collapse, but we certainly do. Maybe we laugh because it's exotic to share a room with tragedies so ordinary and, for a change, have them not be our own.
Or maybe that's just me. What are these ordinary tragedies? It is Jan and Adam's first night alone in seven years — their first night without Gregg, their son, who is attending his first sleepover — and the evening seems ripe for romance. Adam has ordered Chinese food and is serving it with champagne; he means for the pair to eat and drink by candlelight and perhaps make love. But Jan has work. She owns a small startup, and she simply must crunch some numbers before bed. Adam, for his part, is an architect, doomed to jet off at dawn for some nowhere in the Midwest where he's designing an industrial park. The night is bleeding away, and conversations half-started dissolve into arguments half-resolved and end with resentments half-aired, until...
Well, we know this story, tiring and overlong as it is. Resentments are pack animals, and they can seldom be trotted out alone. The domestic gripes come out in force — the ones about work, about attitude, about past misdeeds, about whole different conceptions of life — until the argument is less about behavior than it is about character. And then it ends. And then it begins again. And then there is yelling, and then things quiet down, and then there is nooky, and then there is more yelling, and then the D-word is mentioned, and then things are better again, and then they are not.
Fast-forward a few hours, and dawn is imminent. We behold the fighters, punch-drunk and bloodied (and well-sexed: Weller gets the connection between anger and sex as well as he gets everything else), and unable to believe they're still at it, still taking these crazy swings at a person they ostensibly love, angling for max damage, and quite disgusted with themselves but not sure what to do about it.
The argument could be made that seeing 50 Words is a pointless slog because its subject matter is so unrelentingly workaday. But that's the appeal: It is, if Weller's words resonate with you, a kind of exorcism.
Even if Weller's words don't resonate with you, it's hard to believe that Schmidt and Weiner won't. Smooth as some of their lines are, there is very little smooth about them. Weiner treats the stage like a precipice, with bad falls in every direction. His eyes suggest outrage while his slow mouth and carefully controlled timbre bespeak the breakdown of a good, loyal, but finally exhausted interpreter who has just about lost the capacity to turn that outrage to diplomacy.
Weiner is a brilliant actor, but this kind of fence-sitting ambiguity isn't usually his thing. It is Schmidt's thing, and director Joseph Adler should be commended for dragging his actors in unfamiliar directions. Schmidt, who often spends her time onstage as though she's stuck in the gaps between two opposing and equally galling emotions, here seems to know exactly what she feels and exactly how to say it. Of course, what she says isn't necessarily rational. How could it be? To argue all night with the love of your life is an exercise in self-criticism, and logic has nothing to do with it.
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