Fifty Words Paints a Convincing Portrait of Marital Dysfunction -- If You Care to See One

Jan and Adam (Julie Layton and Isaiah Di Lorenzo) finally have a night alone, and all they want to do is fight.
Jan and Adam (Julie Layton and Isaiah Di Lorenzo) finally have a night alone, and all they want to do is fight. STLAS

Fifty Words

Written by Michael Weller. Directed by John Pierson. Presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio at the Gaslight Theater (358 North Boyle Avenue; through October 6. Tickets are $30 to $35.

Imagine you've been invited to a dinner party, but you know in advance that the hosts will fight for the duration of the evening, and no one will eat. That's Michael Weller's Fifty Words. His two-character drama opens St. Louis Actors' Studio's thirteenth season, and it's an uncomfortable play with few rewards for the audience.

Jan (Julie Layton) and Adam (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) have been together for seventeen years, and with their son away on his first sleepover, they have the brownstone to themselves. Adam has focused his efforts on seducing Jan, while Jan is focused entirely on work. Arguments flare up quickly and are never fully extinguished for the bulk of the play's 90 minutes.

That's not to say Adam doesn't try to smooth things over. Di Lorenzo brings a goofy physical charm to the role, bowing to his wife and leaping around the apartment like an oversize cat stalking a tender morsel. He imbues Adam with an obviously conciliatory manner, as he works to keep her away from the computer and focused on him.

In the early going, Jan is written with a brittle, sharp personality that skewers most of Adam's efforts. Layton plays this up, rarely even looking up from her screen and firing off one- or two-word answers. She's unsympathetic and determined to foil every one of her husband's advances, but slowly relents and opens up.

Between arguments, they talk about their past and how they got to this contentious state of affairs. Jan gave up her dance career to start a family despite not really wanting to be a mother. Now that their son is older, she goes back to work and, for reasons not explained, decides the best position for her is as a freelance database miner(?). It's not an easy transition. Adam is an architect, which he loves. Their individual careers are perhaps a bit of writerly cleverness, as in "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It's a subtle way of signaling that Jan (dancer) and Adam (architect) don't have the language to communicate with each other.

All of the arguments come down to one question: Will their marriage survive the night? For that question to be meaningful, you have to care one way or the other about their marriage. Despite Layton's and Di Lorenzo's skill at portraying a fractious, angry couple, I don't care. As written, neither one has taken an active interest in their relationship until tonight, and if they don't care, how can any outsider?

The title of the play comes from something Jan says, that there should be fifty different words for the wealth of emotions "love" incorporates, such as frustration and resentment, contentment and desire. But there's only one word for love, because true love encompasses all of those feelings. If you forego complaining about her habit of never turning off a light, then she will not speak of your arguing with the sloppy logic of commercials. You let those things lay for the sake of harmony. The fact that neither Jan nor Adam knows this is damning.

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