It’s not that Jamie and Cathy, the twentysomething couple at the center of “The Last Five Years,” fall out of love. Nothing quite as simple as that.
No, what eats away at their marriage like acid, corroding and eventually dissolving it, is their careers. More precisely, the fact that his soars (he’s a novelist) while hers stalls (she’s an actress).
To tell this melancholy tale of the internal damage wrought by external factors, Jason Robert Brown composed a small gem of a score and embedded it within a narrative structure where Jamie and Cathy offer not just opposing versions of their relationship but opposing timelines.
In other words, “The Last Five Years” is a thing of intricacy and delicacy, and much depends on the execution — a challenge director Leigh Barrett more than meets at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, with an invaluable contribution from set designer Jenna McFarland Lord.
Scene by alternating scene, Barrett maps the musical’s emotional trajectory with a combination of subtlety and lucidity. Her stars, the real-life husband and wife Jared Troilo and Kira Troilo, acquit themselves not just admirably but beautifully, in terms of both story and song.
Barrett, of course, is a very familiar name to Boston theatergoers, having long been a top singer-actress here. “The Last Five Years” marks the first time Barrett has directed at Lyric Stage. She has done some of her best work as a performer at the Clarendon Street theater, including remarkable back-to-back turns in 2017 as cyclonic stage mother Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and then, just a couple of weeks later, as wayward warbler Florence Foster Jenkins in “Souvenirs.”
Another bit of back story to this production: Jared and Kira Troilo met when they were in first grade, and the pair had their first date when they were 15. Over the last few years, Jared Troilo has emerged as one of the most charismatic leading men on the Boston stage, while Kira Troilo has worked as an actress and choreographer.
They’re evenly matched in “The Last Five Years,” whether performing separately (nearly all of the songs are solos) or together (in the brief moments when Jamie and Cathy directly interact). Both Troilos communicate the full measure of ardor, humor, and aching loss in Brown’s quasi-autobiographical musical. Jared Troilo makes Jamie a bit more sympathetic than other productions of “The Last Five Years” that I’ve seen, though some in the Lyric Stage audience did gasp at Jamie’s cruelty when he tells Cathy in song, joltingly, that “I will not lose because you can’t win.”
Director Barrett conveys the complexity of the marriage with quietly deft touches. (Not every musical benefits from the intimate confines of Lyric Stage, but a small-scale work like “The Last Five Years” does. Kudos to the six-member band, led by music director Dan Rodriguez.) As Jamie and Cathy pledge eternal love in “The Next Ten Minutes,” a flicker of doubt passes quickly over Jared Troilo’s face. As Cathy stumbles upon an apparently troubling passage from Jamie’s book — is it an unflattering depiction of her? — we see a sudden look of consternation from Kira Troilo.
When we first glimpse Cathy, she is sitting amid packing boxes, anguish etched into her features, reeling from the end of her marriage to Jamie. Over the course of the 90-minute show, Cathy moves back in time, song by song, to their happy and hopeful start, in the kind of reverse-chronology narrative familiar from Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” and Pinter’s “Betrayal.” Jamie, meanwhile, starts at the buoyant beginning of their relationship and proceeds, song by song and phase by inexorable phase, toward their unhappy ending.
These alternating and conflicting accounts unfold on an expressive set by Lord that tells a visual story of its own, augmented by Karen Perlow’s atmospheric lighting design. Framed by large silver rings and numerous smaller rings, the set is centered by a rotating turntable, and when Jamie sings “We’re fine, we’re fine, we’re fine” in one song, the turntable rotates rapidly, as if Jamie is trying to convince himself, even as we can see matters literally spinning out of control.
In a key scene when Cathy puts her highest romantic hopes into song, Jamie sits on a packing box, scribbling grimly on a pad. But then the musical has suggested early on that Jamie’s view of Cathy is at least partly instrumental, that his love for her might be equivocal, that he sees her as a muse. “You are the story I should write — I have to write,” he sings at one point.
When their marriage ends, Jamie is sad, but Cathy is shattered. You sense that he’ll recover. You wonder if she will.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Leigh Barrett. Music director, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Dec. 12. Tickets $25-$80. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com