Marriage is no walk in the park in “Fifty Words,” Michael Weller’s incisive closeup of the emotional battleground of contemporary relationships, in which most audiences with any experience of cohabitation — and any shred of honesty — will recognize themselves in either one or the other or perhaps both of the people who make up the couple onstage. It’s obvious why this volatile drama would attract an actor-director to the helm, and Austin Pendleton’s taut production for MCC referees gladiatorial performances from Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel that make it impossible to look away.
The play is a bruising back and forth of power games, recriminations, seemingly innocent putdowns and ugly confessions, but it’s the evidence of inextinguishable love and desire that makes this 21st century George and Martha fascinating. Weller appears to be writing from painful experience, and while not every single moment rings true, the play is marked by a fundamental understanding of the paradoxical dynamic by which a mismatched couple can be an enduring fit.
Setting up the fireworks with tidy economy, Weller places youngish urban professionals Adam (Butz) and Jan (Marvel) in their comfortable Brooklyn brownstone (a perfect real estate snapshot in Neil Patel’s sharp design), alone for the first time in nine years. Their socially challenged son has been packed off (with hamster) to his first sleepover, and the removal of that buffer allows for some unaccustomed airing of gripes large and small that have been percolating through a problem patch in the marriage.
At first, the friction seems like standard marital prickliness between two opposite personalities. The product of a moneyed Florida family, former dancer Jan is uptight, a little shut off, impeccably tasteful and all work, returning to her laptop whenever possible. The more loosey-goosey, emotionally declarative Adam climbed up from humble roots to run a small architecture firm. The determination with which he uses humor and good-natured horniness to combat her stiffness is irresistible, until Butz slyly reveals how this passive-aggressive manipulation has become a self-serving, all-purpose strategy.
“You’re such a bizarro,” says Jan in a throwaway observation that gets under Adam’s skin. His reaction opens a window to their history of fights and also signals that the gloves have come off for the rest of the evening.
The action takes place over a single night, and while brief blackouts indicate the advancing hour, the play seems to be unfolding in real time. Many of the early exchanges revolve around Adam’s tireless bid for sex, which seems less like seduction than wearing down Jan’s resistance. When he’s finally poised to triumph, she instead returns to her work (on some kind of ill-defined startup marketing business), inching the conflict up another few notches.
“I wish you weren’t such a withholding, anxious, critical bitch,” blurts out Adam. Childish though he is, it’s hard to disagree with him given the coldness with which Jan is written and played. That Weller unsurprisingly leans toward the male point of view is one of the play’s weaknesses; it creates an imbalance that becomes more nagging when Adam’s infidelity is revealed and yet he still retains the greater portion of audience sympathy. This may have a lot to do with Butz’s clownish charms but it chafes as unfair bias.
However, there’s also something bracingly uncompromising about Marvel’s tough characterization. She shows vulnerability and self-doubt, only to end any momentary detente by rebuffing Adam’s proffered olive branch and seizing back power. But her emotional stubbornness gives the drama real teeth. And her gradual disintegration from put-together businesswoman to mascara-streaked wreck underscores how deep the wounds cut.
While some of Jan’s reactions seem questionable — particularly her sarcastic indifference when Adam reveals his business is in trouble — that harshness feeds into the interesting idea that this is a woman whose blinders are off concerning the supposed harmony of family life.
“You have this magical idea about family, like it’s this eternal Disney World where everyone’s smiling and warm and available 24 seven,” she says. “It’s twisted, Adam.”
Weller has dug into the complexities of relationships before in his plays from the 1980s, including “Loose Ends,” “Moonchildren” and “Spoils of War.” But while this feels like a return to a kind of drama that hasn’t been around much in the past decade or two, it also seems firmly planted in present-day attitudes and concerns. It’s a much more confronting play than the prosaic title (Jan observes there should be 50 words for love, “like the Eskimos have for snow”) would appear to indicate.
While the play’s intensity makes it more psychologically compelling than emotionally involving, Pendleton heightens the situation’s immediacy by maintaining tension and pushing for maximum physicality from his cast. This is a terrific actors’ vehicle, and both Butz and Marvel respond with fierce commitment. Whether audiences will be entertained or exhausted by their faceoff depends on how much they can separate personal experience from the punishing love-hate contract being negotiated onstage.