It's been a damn good fall for Michael Weller. The Moonchildren playwright, who had delved into obscurity, is receiving two major Off-Broadway premieres this fall. What makes these back-to-back plays even more impressive is how they differ substantively and stylistically.
First up came Beast, a unrealistic so-called "fever dream" in which two lonely, injured Iraq War veterans return to the United States and confront President Bush, ultimately burning him to death. Now comes Fifty Words, which is a gritty, realistic domestic drama. Just as Beast was fascinating for its pure theatricality, Fifty Words is a thrilling character study splashed with nonstop verbal and physical energy.
Fifty Words begins at about 9 p.m. in Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) and Adam's (Norbert Leo Butz) Brooklyn
&nbspbrownstone. At present, they are reveling in the freedom of having waved off their young son to a neighborhood sleepover. They are alone for the first time in a decade.
Unfortunately, the solitude shatters the glue that was holding their marriage together. Jan is too busy on the computer to fulfill Adam's sexual appetite. We also learn that their son has been displaying some odd behavior at school. The principal wonders whether it is due to trouble at home.
Eventually, secrets are spilled (an affair, regrets, sinking job) and the entire evening goes to hell. But rather than merely scare us with signs of domestic disaster, Weller is attempting to pierce through the veils of modern marriage and into the ruins of a failed partnership.
The plays' title refers to a speech made by Jan where she muses that a married couple's sense of connection cannot be expressed in a single word like love, but would take fifty words or more. Weller ends the piece on a random, sudden note, unclear whether the pair will remain together.
Even if you find that Weller's text descends into melodrama or a traditional battle of the sexes, Austin Pendleton has staged a gripping production with two nuanced, naturalistic, occasionally violent performances by Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel.