Meeting in the middle
ASPEN Hadley Fraser was all set for his big, splashy Broadway debut. The Englishman had landed the role of Tiernan, the male lead in the musical “The Pirate Queen.” The subject matter – the adventures of Grace O’Malley, a 16th-century Irish pirate – may have been obscure, but the team behind the production was not. “The Pirate Queen” had been written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, whose previous efforts included “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.””It was supposed to be a bloody ‘Les Mis,’ going on for years and years,” said Fraser.In fact, “The Pirate Queen” didn’t even go for months and months. The show opened in early April, and closed in mid-June, after just 85 performances. Fraser believes that the New York critics had it in for the show from the start, but he adds that the production had its internal problems as well.”It was old-fashioned,” he conceded. “Some of the music was beautiful – but not enough of it. It wasn’t the right show to be on Broadway at that time.”Don’t feel bad for Fraser. He’s had something of a charmed life in the theater so far. Right out of school – college at the University of Birmingham, where acting was for fun and meeting girls, and a more serious postgraduate theater course – he won a part in a production of “Les Mis” in London’s West End. Fraser played the young lover Marius – “one of only two characters alive in the end,” he points out. At 26, handsome and talented and with experience in straight theater and TV as well as musicals, Fraser’s had hardly exhausted his options.In fact, days after “The Pirate Queen” closed, the out-of-work actor became a working actor once again. The call came from Theatre Aspen, where a series of actors who had been lined up to star in “The Last Five Years” had all bowed out. Paige Price, the female lead in Jason Robert Brown’s two-person, romantic musical, was frantically working her connections; one of them passed – said the part was nine notes too high – but mentioned Fraser’s name. As it turned out, Paige saw Fraser in “The Pirate Queen,” met him briefly, and agreed he could pull off the role. Even if Fraser would be playing not just an American – something he had never tried onstage before – but a New York Jew – something he had no familiarity with whatsoever.The luck continues. In “The Last Five Years,” Fraser plays Jamie, a quickly rising writer who gets to tell the story of his romance with Price’s Cathy from the beginning and moving forward. So Jamie comes off as newly in love, optimistic about the future with his “Shiksa Goddess.”
Save your sympathy, then, for Paige Price. In “The Last Five Years,” she has the heavy duty of telling the Jamie-Cathy story from the end, backward. So when Price hits the stage, it is as a woman looking back on the detritus of a failed relationship. It is her burden to open the show, with the song “Still Hurting.””It’s hard to get people to care about you when they don’t why she’s upset,” said Price. “You just get this sad woman. There’s no payoff – they don’t know why I’m upset. They’re thinking maybe I deserve it.”And his role,” she added, pointing to her co-star, “is to get people to laugh, and lift them up right away.”But don’t feel too bad for Price, either. For one thing, the 43-year-old blonde has a busy career, on and off the stage. The New Jersey native ditched college to take a role in “All the Right Moves,” Tom Cruise’s 1983 football movie. A decade later, she made her Broadway debut in the hit “Beauty and the Beast.” She stumbled into “some really bad movies,” but has backed up her acting with business roles. Price is a vice president of Actors Equity and is co-chair of the alien committee (a position which came in handy when Fraser was confronted with immigration issues). Even this summer in Aspen, she’s showing several faces: In Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series, she has been presenting her one-person show “The eX-Files,” which, like, “The Last Five Years,” traces the downward course of relationships. (“The eX-Files” has its final showing Sunday, Aug. 26.)In “The Last Five Years,” Cathy, by starting her story from the sad ending, can only go up. While Jamie’s narrative heads toward the dumps, Cathy’s has an upward arc. “By the end of the night, I’m ready to hit the bars. And Hadley’s hitting bottom,” she quipped.Playing characters who are bound for an unhappy place, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean a sad experience for the actors. Price takes it as a challenge to earn the audience’s sympathy, given how her Cathy is introduced to the audience.”I think there is an opportunity to elicit a response that is familiar and potent,” she said. “I want to feel something in the theater, and if you can relate it to your own life, so much the better. Playing the ingenue, or the slap-happy chappie – that’s not it. The scope of this relationship – that’s a real opportunity.”
That Jamie tells his story from the beginning, and Cathy tells her from the end – the two positions meet in the middle – is the show’s most unusual conceit. But it is not necessarily the most effective.More interesting, and more poignant regarding contemporary life, is how little romance there is in their romance. Fraser and Price are rarely onstage together. When they are, they usually occupy separate sides of the stage. Even in the early phase of their relationship, the two are singing not to each other, but to the audience, and, more important, to themselves. Instead of relating, they are each building their own narratives. The moments when Jamie and Cathy actually connect, either physically or emotionally, are few.Which is not the usual experience for the audience, and is doubly hard on the actors. “I white-knuckle the scenes we do together,” said Price. “Because an actor loves to play off another actor.”There is plenty of humor in the play, which unfolds entirely in song. Fraser gets to do Jamie’s Jewish-guy schtick which, though far from original, is done here with clever wordplay. A Christmas scene, in which Jamie buys Cathy a Santa Claus clock, is a welcome bit of goofiness.The highlight of the show is the somber ending. Cathy is upbeat, proclaiming that this is the love she’s been waiting for in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” Jamie is at the other side of the stage singing “I Could Never Rescue You.” It is the ultimate disconnect.”There’s always two truths in a relationship,” notes Price. “You construct these two truth individually. And what you construct for yourselves becomes reality.”
“The Last Five Years” shows Friday and Monday through Saturday, Aug. 27-Sept. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in the Theatre Aspen tent in Rio Grande Park.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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