There's nothing more romantic than being young and in love in New York City, walking together along the worn, sooty streets touched by that filtered city sunlight, oblivious to the sound of traffic and the rush and impatience of the anonymous crowd. The Last Five Years has been widely described as a bittersweet account of the breakup of a five-year marriage, but it's more than that. It's a specifically New York love story, told with the kind of warm, neurotic, clever-rueful Jewish humor we expect from such stories. Catherine -- who isn't Jewish -- is a young actress looking for her big break; Jamie -- who is -- carries the manuscript for his first novel. Their love is as much a yearning for fame and artistic fulfillment as for each other.

We know at the show's beginning that this love is doomed, because the first thing we see is Catherine sitting alone on stage, lamenting over Jamie's goodbye letter. But just as you've begun to digest that, there's Jamie on stage, singing rapturously about Catherine, his "shiksa goddess."

The Last Five Years is told almost entirely in song, with only a handful of spoken passages, and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown divides it into two separate arcs: Jamie relates events chronologically, while Catherine tells the story backward, beginning with the marriage's disintegration and ending with her ecstatic ruminations after the first date. The arcs transect only once, at the midpoint when the two marry and, having said their vows, gaze dreamily at the buildings of New York and marvel at the life of discovery in front of them.

This crisscross device elevates what could otherwise be a banal plot, and also lends color and dimension to the twisting skein of emotion. The blame for the breakup keeps shifting. At first you take Catherine's word for it that Jamie's literary success has made him self-absorbed and neglectful -- and he seems to confirm this with a song about how hard it is to resist other women. But as Jamie works through his contrapuntal forward plot line, you come to see how bitter and jealous Catherine has been as his career soars while hers remains stuck. In a wonderful Yiddish-inflected comic song, he tells the story of Schmuel the tailor: One night, Schmuel's clock turned backward, giving him time to sew all his dreams into a wonderful dress, to become a young man again and to win -- with this dress -- the heart of the girl he loves. As he sings, Jamie urges Catherine to be bold in pursuing her desires and assures her of his open-hearted support. But she remains stalled, refusing to celebrate his own successes with him, sulking at home while he attends pre-publication parties and collects glowing reviews.

The Last Five Years illuminates the dynamics of a failed relationship, the pain of knowing you're behaving badly and alienating your partner but being unable to stop, while your partner struggles with precisely the same realization. Almost all of the songs are solos, underlining the couple's loneliness and emotional distance. But despite the sense of loss it conveys, this isn't a weepy show. Some of the songs are very funny, particularly Catherine's description of a nightmare audition and Jamie's "Shiksa Goddess." The music is fluid and almost continual, and the songs explicate the plot and reveal the protagonists' deepest feelings. There's a dash of early Sondheim in the cleverness of the phrasing, the way the lyrics and melodies weave the story: You can see why they won the 2002 Drama Desk Award.

But they also reveal the only significant problem with this Modern Muse production. Describing the piece, Brown once said, "I wanted to find a way to write the kind of music that would make sense for these characters and not have it turn into an amplification festival, with everyone wearing headset mikes." Yet Susan Dawn Carson and Jeff Roark, who both turn in vivid, gutsy, heartfelt performances backed by skilled comic timing, are miked. At best, the amplification detracts somewhat from the intimacy of the story; at worst, it outright distorts specific notes.

Otherwise, the direction by Stephen J. Lavezza and Gabriella Cavallero is skilled, and the staging is fluidly expressive. Adam Rowe's set, which involves two platforms, stairs and, in the background, what looks like a skyscraper with windows made up of photographs, is evocative. It's a great pleasure to see live musicians at work: The musical director is Scott Martin, who also plays the piano; Kevin E. Johnson plays cello and Deborah A. Fuller violin.

Brown composed The Last Five Years after the dissolution of his own marriage; apparently his wife's lawyer stopped an early production of the play because it revealed aspects of the relationship she considered private. At the end, Jamie is saddened and sobered while Catherine has become an exuberant young girl again. That ending stays with me, along with Carson's portrayal of Catherine as she once was -- with the light of hope in her eyes. I remember the way Schmuel's clock moved backward in the song, hour by hour, giving the old tailor his chance for a new life, and I can't help wondering if Brown isn't attempting to convey a similar blessing, both to his character and to the real-life woman he once loved.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman