After Hours Theatre Company made a name for themselves as innovators in Los Angeles theater with last year’s hit immersive production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where audience members donned hospital gowns and participated in pre-show activities, becoming a part of the asylum. For their next show, they chose The Last Five Years, which does not quite lend itself so easily to an interactive production. But they have still found plenty of ways to set this iteration of Jason Robert Brown’s beloved musical, which opened this weekend at The Other Space at The Actor’s Company in Hollywood, apart from those that came before it.
Unlike Cuckoo’s Nest, The Last Five Years is not an immersive production. For that to be the case, audience members would have to be a part of the story. I am not sure who would want to be immersed in this particular story—I feel like I speak for not only myself when I say I do not have to visit the theater to be immersed in a failed relationship. Instead, After Hours has crafted what they are calling a “multisensory experience,” featuring an interactive pre-show exhibit, scent design, and curated cocktails. When you arrive at the space, you can grab one of three signature drinks from the bar before exploring a series of exhibits focused on exploring the psychology of relationships and engaging different senses. There is a letter writing station where you’re encouraged to write a message to a loved one, past or present. These notes are then placed in a memory box and eventually end up inside a gumball machine, where you can then retrieve a note an audience member wrote on a previous night. The one I received read “you’ve become a stranger to me,” so people seem to be taking the opportunity to write meaningful messages quite seriously. You can also snap a Polaroid and leave it behind for a guest book of sorts and interact with props from the show that have been soaked in scents meant to prompt specific feelings.
The space is incredibly intimate, barely large enough for around 60 audience members, a fabulous six-piece band, and, of course, the two actors. Directed here by Kari Hayter, The Last Five Years tells the story of Jamie (Scott Porter), a writer, and Cathy (Janel Parrish), an actress, two 20-something New Yorkers who fall in love quickly but eventually experience various hardships in their relationship. What makes this show, which Brown wrote based on his own failed first marriage, unique is that while Jamie’s story is told chronologically, Cathy’s is told in reverse. Almost every scene is a solo performance, with the exception of one song in the middle of the show, when their timelines briefly cross at their wedding.
This structure is challenging performance-wise. The two actors have to build convincing chemistry despite hardly ever interacting or sharing the stage, and they both have to play their scenes to thin air, singlehandedly creating the emotions and larger context. Luckily, the show is in great hands with Porter and Parrish, who are both well-known from their television roles on Friday Night Lights and Pretty Little Liars, respectively. As Cathy, Parrish finds fun ways to lean into the character’s more lighthearted and funny side, which is refreshing for a role that can default to nagging and neurotic in lesser hands. In the bouncy “Summer in Ohio,” as she writes Jamie about her experience performing summer stock theater with an odd cast of characters, her delivery of the line “I play Anita at the matinee,” usually full of forced optimism, is sung with a misery and desperation that adds a whole new dimension.
While Cathy ultimately ends up as the more sympathetic of the two characters, Porter has a tougher needle to thread as Jamie, who is ultimately a selfish, self-important man. But the second he opens his mouth, all boyish charm and confident charisma, you immediately understand why of course Cathy would fall for him. Ultimately, the traits that make Cathy, and the audience, resent him are the very same ones that make him a catch in the beginning. Porter also has a terrific voice, and casting someone as instantly likable as him in this role is a very smart casting choice because it deftly complicates all that is to come later. The band also sounds terrific in the small space. At certain moments, it feels like there is untapped potential in this staging and the integration of the two storylines, and without much of a set, context is lost in some scenes. But that’s part of the beauty of The Last Five Years—the music and emotions are strong enough to stand on their own, and it works whether it is stripped down like this or more elaborate.
During the show, you may notice certain strong smells wafting from origins unknown. This scent design (Christoff Visscher) is part of the “multisensory experience,” and while it is certainly something different, trying to identify and contextualize the various scents ultimately felt distracting and unnecessary. Audience members who purchase premium tickets are served a tasting of four special cocktails, conceived by Spirit Guides, at timed moments throughout the show. Both of these elements certainly involve at least one sense not typically engaged in the average theater production. While the interactive elements feel much more forced here than they did with Cuckoo’s Nest, the innovation is still something to be admired. The extra bells and whistles may not be necessary, but what’s important is that there is a really strong performance of a great musical at the core of this “experience,” one that is very much worth seeing.
The Last Five Years runs at The Other Space at The Actor’s Company through July 14th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission, with a slightly late start to enable guests to experience the pre-show exhibit. General admission is $75, and $115 tickets include the curated cocktail tasting during the show. To purchase tickets, click here.