last five years

Adair Watkins, left, tells the story from the beginning, while Meredith Owens picks it up from the end in Le Petit's 'The Last Five Years.'

What’s the opposite of a romantic comedy?

What do you call those teary, bittersweet stories about finding love and losing it? About breaking up and moving on?

If there’s not a name for this particular style of storytelling, there should be, and “The Last Five Years” should be held up as shining example.

Surprisingly sweet and charming, “The Last Five Years” (through Nov. 19 at Le Petit) is a heartfelt look at the life cycle of a romantic relationship, from the first date to the last goodbye.

Written by Jason Robert Brown, the show has earned a fervent following since debuting off-Broadway in 2002. With just two characters and a modest score of moving songs, “The Last Five Years” delivers a break from the usual glitz and glam of big Broadway musicals, proving that sometimes less is more.

In a neat narrative trick, audiences get both sides of the breakup, as Jamie (Adair Watkins) tells the story from the beginning, while Cathy (Meredith Owens) starts from the end. Even though they’re sharing the same stage, the characters are in different places, recalling different moments, working through a timeline that brings them together for only a brief moment in the middle where there’s a ring and a proposal.

When they first meet, Jamie is an up-and-coming writer and Cathy is an aspiring actress. But as his first novel takes off, her career flounders. While Jamie makes the rounds at cocktail parties in New York City, Cathy is stuck on a touring production in Ohio. Despite their mutual affection, their lives grow apart, and the relationship becomes strained.

The criss-crossed chronologies of “The Last Five Years” means the story trades the usual dramatic narrative arc for a more balanced sequence of emotional weights and counterweights. The opening number, “Still Hurting,” finds Cathy lamenting that “Jamie is over, and Jamie is gone.” But it’s followed with Jamie’s exuberant ode to new love, “Shiksa Goddess,” where he exclaims “I’ve been waiting for someone like you!”

The back-and-forth is deftly directed by Michael E. McKelvey, moonlighting from his day job as artistic director of Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, where he normally helms much larger productions, like this summer’s “Gypsy” and “Hairspray.” Despite downsizing here, the show exhibits a fine attention to detail, finding significance in the smallest of gestures, from half-smiles and loving gazes to rolling eyes or a dismissive wave.

Watkins and Owens are excellent casting choices, displaying characters with serious chemistry despite rarely addressing each other directly. The sweet-hearted performances evoke a tone that’s torn between fluttering infatuation and sinking despair.

Brown’s pop-inspired score lilts and swells at the hands of the show’s three-piece orchestra, featuring Ronald Joseph (piano), Sultana Isham (violin), and Gary Washington (cello).

The precision of the storytelling is echoed in the set design and costumes. David Utley’s handsome scenic design features clean, straight lines and lots of right angles, creating a Manhattan apartment out of big rectangular windows, a heavy door, and simple furniture. Likewise, the costumes are precisely tailored, from his slim jacket and jeans to her fit-and-flare dress.

At 90 minutes, the show is short and sweet, though the last couple of numbers draw out the couple’s prolonged, inevitable end.

The sharply crafted story and subtle, finely wrought details of the production belie the message at the heart of the “The Last Five Years,” that no matter how perfect the couple, love can be messy, and things rarely end neatly.

****************

'The Last Five Years'

WHEN: Through Nov. 19

WHERE: Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St.

TICKETS: $35-50 ($15 for students)

INFO: (504) 522-2081 or lepetittheatre.com