Theater Review: ‘Fifty Words’

October 17, 2008 Updated: October 17, 2008

NEW YORK—With overtones harking back to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Michael Weller’s Fifty Words takes us into a maybe disintegrating marriage. I say “maybe” because the ending leaves us with the ambiguity that life so often presents.

This two-hander displays Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) and husband Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) in their Brooklyn brownstone living room on an evening alone together, the first they’ve had in the nine years since their son Greg was born. Tonight, Greg is away on his very first sleepover. Adam, heartily looking forward to the intimacy with his beloved that this evening will surely provide, has brought a bottle of champagne to enliven the festivities.

Jan instead, however, nervously fusses about Greg. Will he do all right tonight? He’s been indicating some difficulty in school, was found hiding in a closet underneath laundry, has problems making friends, etc.  She continues to flutter like a nervous hen although Adam calmly tries to bring her back to the subject—the subject of some private and passionate lovemaking.

The tension becomes more and more apparent as the evening wears on. Playwright Weller appears to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary marriage, one issue being that the two are both career people; they tend to carry their work home with them, an element that often cuts into intimacy.

But Adam, in an effort to lighten up the atmosphere, reminds Jan of how they first met, in an elevator, where she displayed an inordinate degree of affection for a stranger who, however, later became her husband. It is Adam who is the leavening factor here, always patient, making light of things, seeming to be willing to wait endlessly for his skittish wife to come around.

When finally he believes he has succeeded and goes upstairs, expecting Jan to follow, she instead plunks herself down at her computer and appears to be engrossed in a work-related problem.

Adam comes back downstairs and the stakes rise. Inadvertently, or perhaps purposely—both the playwright and actor are subtle here—a dark secret pops out of Adam’s mouth. It is a secret that stands to rock the relationship to its very foundation.

Now the two go at it, no holds barred—love/hate, past resentments, disappointments. The play runs about an hour and a half, no intermission to diminish the tension.

Responsible for the success of the project is a tightly knit team:  Norbert Leo Butz gives a tour de force performance as the frustrated but always amiable husband, pulling out every stop to try to persuade his mate to pay serious attention to him. Elizabeth Marvel makes an effective foil as she frustrates Adam at every turn, until the revelation of his secret brings out the passion or rage, she has long kept buried.

How will it all end? Playwright Weller’s bristly dialogue and quick-step plot turns keep you tantalized. Playing a major part is the taut and perceptive direction of Austin Pendleton. Pendleton is a fine actor himself, and it takes that kind of high level know-how to be able to draw out two particularly astute and intense performances, as well as devising some clever staging. 

Rounding out the effect is the nonostentatious, on-the-money set by Neil Patel, supported by Michelle Habeck’s lighting. Costumes by Mimi O’Donnell might have been a bit classier, especially for Ms. Marvel, but that’s a minor quibble. All in all, an evening in the theater both light and pithy, especially if one enjoys watching and possibly empathizing with the vicissitudes of a contemporary couple.

Fifty Words
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Tickets: (212) 279-4200
Closes: Oct. 25

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts newsletter. For information: