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Fifty Words
by Michael Weller
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 20, 2019

Isaiah Di Lorenzo, Julie Layton
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season is titled “2 to Tango”, featuring a complete line-up of two-character plays. This concept strikes me as a particularly strong opportunity to highlight the dynamics of various relationships as well as serving as a showcase for actors. The season’s first offering, Michael Weller’s¬† Fifty Words¬†certainly provides that showcase, with an excellent pair of actors displaying their range in the portrayal of a complex and often combative marital relationship.

There isn’t much, if anything, in this story that hasn’t been done before in other “marriage story” works, and the revelations that enfold in this play aren’t entirely surprising. Still, the plot isn’t as much the point here. This show is more about power dynamics, and what makes this relationship tick, and I think it does manage a sort of surprise near the end, depending on the viewer’s perspective. It follows a married couple, Adam (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) and Jan (Julie Layton), both professionals who are devoted to their careers, as well as parents of a young son who is out of the house spending the night away at a friend’s house for the first time. Adam and Jan apparently haven’t had an evening alone together since their son was born, and they are trying to make the most of the time, although they appear to have different agendas. Adam seems to be all about making the most of the romantic (and sexual) possibilities of the evening, while Jan seems to be more focused on finishing an important project for work. Their contrasting personalities–the more spontaneous Adam and the more goal-focused Jan–are a catalyst for some of the drama, but as more information is revealed about Adam’s upcoming business trip, about their history as a couple, and about their approaches to parenting, more is revealed about both characters and the nature of their relationship. It’s an exploration of the challenges of modern married life and the conflicting commitments of parenting and career, as well as looking at some of the more stereotypical assumptions that come from those commitments for husbands and for wives. Through the course of the evening, there are ups and downs, revelations and reactions, confrontations and contrasts, but overall this is a game of balances and who, ultimately, holds the power in the relationship.

This is a fine character study, with some intense moments, although both characters aren’t particularly easy to like. Still, this script has some sharp insights into what a marriage between these two personalities would be like, and it’s a particularly strong showcase for the performers, who in this production are both superb, and impressively well-matched. Di Lorenzo brings the calculating, trying-to-be-charming energy and Layton’s more initially aloof exterior carries a range of emotions below the surface. The combination of the two is dynamic, occasionally volatile, and entirely credible. The drama here is these two, and both performers rise to the challenge of the script, providing the play’s emotional weight in the varacity of their relationship.

The production values are, as is usual for STLAS, excellent. I’m continually impressed by how well this company uses its small stage space, here recreating a small-ish New York apartment with care and detail in Sammy Kriesch’s meticulous set. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer John Pierson, props designer Jenny Smith, and costume designer Andrea Robb. Pierson’s staging is well-measured, bringing out the gradually building tension of the piece and the relationship.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season from STLAS. There are some intriguing productions lined up. The starter, Fifty Words, is essentially successful in the pure strength of the casting and the dynamic between these two caustically contrasting characters. It’s worth seeing for the sheer quality of the performances.

Julie Layton, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fifty Words at the Gaslight Theatre until October 6, 2019

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