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Review: Close Quarters and Distant Love in ‘The Last Five Years’

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Breakups, hookups, divorces, engagements: Even if you haven’t been afflicted yourself, you’ve surely heard stories of the dramatic changes Covid-19 has wrought on relationships, as though Cupid himself got feverish and went rogue.

It’s unsurprising, given how the pandemic has redefined space, shrinking the square footage of our lives to a house or a studio apartment. Proximity became a test, and if you don’t believe me, the proof is in Out of the Box Theatrics and Holmdel Theater Company’s gorgeously performed and neatly contained virtual production of “The Last Five Years.”

Plot-wise, you may already know the lowdown: Created by Jason Robert Brown, the 2001 musical is about the beginning and ending of a five-year relationship between two young New Yorkers. Each side of the story is enacted separately, and in opposite chronological order; Cathy (Nasia Thomas), a struggling actress, begins the tale in the future, after the fights and farewells, while Jamie (Nicholas Edwards), a talented novelist on the path to celebrity, starts in the past, in the exciting early days of courtship. Their paths only cross once, in the middle of the musical, during their wedding.

Though the show is barely old enough to be of legal drinking age, it’s had many lives. Consider the myriad productions we’ve recounted in this newspaper: in 2002, at the Minetta Lane Theater; in 2012, at Crossroads Theater Company; in 2013, at Second Stage Theater; and in 2016, a benefit concert with Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry at Town Hall. I’ll even take a moment to recall the tragically limp 2015 film version, starring the otherwise button-cute Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.

And yet for all of this, “The Last Five Years” was and remains just … fine. The diverging timelines are often confusing, the songs workable but nothing extraordinary and the character portraits rely too heavily on the clockwork conceit.

Which is what makes this virtual production, directed by Jason Michael Webb (the musical director of several Broadway shows), that much more delightful. For one, a Black Cathy and Jamie feel like a novelty, given how many productions cast white leads by default. And Webb’s arrangements, which anchor Brown’s score with more soul and strut, allow Thomas and Edwards to revitalize the songs.

“Still Hurting” is a showcase for Thomas’s regal timbre, her vibrato recalling the crystal-clear tone of a knife clinked on a champagne glass.

Edwards, who recently starred as the Son of God in the Berkshire Theater Group’s pandemic-era production of “Godspell,” wears the kind of toothy grin that could bring out the sun on a cloudy day, and his vocals are just as sunny, especially in his character’s effervescent early numbers.

Later, Edwards, as an older, restless Jamie, slows down into the melancholic swells of “Nobody Needs to Know.” (Carin M. Ford’s sound editing and Nicole Maupin’s sound mixing expertly coax liveliness from the performers, by no means a given in a recorded musical.)

The production’s most clever aspect, however, is what defines it as a Covid-19 theater experience: the penned-in feel of where and how it’s shot. Filmed inside a New York apartment, “The Last Five Years” recalls the claustrophobic bubble of a couple who remain stuck — because of love or codependency or, maybe, a pandemic — in each other’s orbits until something gives.

Wall scrolls, tapestries, pictures, books and random Star Wars collectibles (like a familiar green baby alien) create the look of a fully lived-in space and also provide visual clues into the couple’s style and personality, details absent in the script (design is by Adam Honoré).

Webb’s inspired direction keeps the characters, and the paths of their relationship, in a tight embrace. Cathy and Jamie move around each other, often inhabiting the same space, but their interactions often feel distanced. Because the couple meets only once in the timeline, there’s a sense of pantomime to their other scenes together, reactions and physical proximity but no dialogue. It’s fitting because we know, watching, that what we’re seeing is only one character’s memory of an event.

At least Cathy and Jamie have beautiful accompanists to score their confrontations and declarations of love. Six musicians haunt the space like ghosts: Sitting on a couch, perched on a bed, they function as silent stand-ins for friends and roommates, before fading back into the background, or discreetly poke the fourth wall with a subtle smirk or nod at the singing characters.

Meanwhile, Brian Bon’s videography waltzes with the contours of the apartment, angling high and low and peeking around corners to create the illusion of a labyrinthine setting for relationship purgatory.

In purgatory, time doesn’t pass. The same may feel true during a pandemic. Two lovers stuck together but living in two different moments — one racing toward the future, one clinging to the past — that’s a story I’ve heard before.

But in this robust production, it’s a story impressively freed, not trapped, by its physical and creative limitations.

The Last Five Years
Through April 25; ootbtheatrics.com

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