Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz in Fifty Words
(© Joan Marcus)
Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz in Fifty Words
(© Joan Marcus)
Were Elizabeth Marvel and Leo Norbert Butz not so fearless and Austin Pendleton's direction less ferocious, there would be little to say for MCC Theater's production of Fifty Words, Michael Weller's battle of the sexes rattling the boards at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Despite the title, Jan (Marvel) and Adam (Butz) take hundreds, maybe thousands of words to snarl through a night of domestic turbulence (made even more terrifying by Rick Sordelet's impressive fight choreography). The result appears as if Weller has looked at Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage and said to himself, "They think they've demonstrated how gnarled the tied knot can get, but I'll show them what combat really is."

About to enjoy their first evening alone in nine years, because son Greg is on a sleep-over, long-married architect Adam and small-business entrepreneur Jan initially note the tension that's been growing between them before pausing for a few intimate moments on Neil Patel's mouth-watering version of a New York City townhouse. Those happy minutes are fleeting, however, as few members of the audience will fail to guess.

What's been eating at Adam all these months is his missing Jan's sexual pleasures in favor of her staring into a computer while worrying about clients and accounts. What's been gnawing at Jan, among other matters, is her resenting of Adam's unrealistic expectations of what constitutes a happy family, especially with Greg's increasingly odd behavior at school and at home. As the friction mounts, another -- alas unsurprising -- revelation raises the furor by quantum measures.

Granted, Weller writes convincing dialogue for two smart and accomplished people who know each other so well they can quickly locate every pushable button. But convincing dialogue doesn't necessarily equate with a convincing play. Underlying the vicious verbal and physical exchanges is the persistent but inaccurate belief that what constitutes a truly profound connection between a man and a woman is their ability to fight productively.

So before Weller lets Michele Haback's lights fade to black, Weller implies there may be hope for Adam and Jan. Yet from what he's revealed of their effect on one another -- and on young Greg -- they haven't been fighting the healing fight. Indeed, they're not strengthening their union; they're simply delaying its rightful end. While they'd like a choice of 50 words for love to denote the category where they fit, 100 wouldn't get around to their fractiousness.

Fortunately, Marvel (who's eventually required to appear topless in an extended scene) is mesmerizing in her ability to resemble a tightly-wound spring tightening, and Butz, whose dancing skill in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has clearly prepared him for a different kind of compelling choreography, is a couple dozen springs sprung from a confining box. If the situation Weller puts them in is only passingly realistic, their performances are so real that the audience's temptation to turn away from the pain is all but constant.