Andre Gregory’s Nazi Ghost; ‘Last Five Years’: Review

I can’t think of any better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than by spending 90 exhilarating minutes with “The Last Five Years,” Jason Robert Brown’s giddily sorrowful eulogy for a brief marriage.

A two-character, one-act song cycle from 2002, the show follows a very young couple’s progress from first meeting to divorce. The twist added by this ferociously gifted composer-lyricist is to have the woman’s songs begin at the end of the tale, the man’s from the beginning.

Where Jamie and Catherine come together and eventually end up is funny but tremendously affecting, especially as delivered at Second Stage by Betsy Wolfe, with her rapturous soprano, and Adam Kantor, a fine tenor with terrific timing.

“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone,” Catherine sings in the opening. “Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on.”

She’s followed by Jamie’s “Shiksa Goddess,” the self-satisfied anthem of a good Jewish boy who can’t believe his luck at landing the blonde Gentile of his dirty dreams. It’s worthy of the young Philip Roth.

Smart, spoiled and talented, Jamie is on a fast track to success as a writer. Smart, down-to-earth and maybe not-as-talented, Catherine is frequently on a bus to Ohio, where she can’t break out of summer stock jobs.

Comic Gem

Her song about that work is a comic gem. So is “The Schmuel Song,” the number that sort-of redeems Jamie when he makes up a fable to push Catherine to truly put herself to the test in following her own dream.

Forget the rest of the post-Sondheim generation of composer-lyricists stuck in 12-tone hell. Brown honors the master with songs that are melodically adventurous yet accessible, and lyrics that vibrate with intelligence.

Derek McLane’s simple window panes with projections of Jamie’s and Catherine’s inside and outside worlds, Emily Rebholz’s spot-on costumes and Jeff Croiter’s elegiac lighting showcase but never overwhelm the singers.

Brown, whose bigger musicals include “Parade” and “13,” is a master of pastiche and an excellent director of his work. The Viennese waltz that concludes the show, played by a superb six-piece band, is dreamlike in its ability to get inside you.

Through May 12 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; Rating: ****

Andre Gregory

Andre Gregory has been known to take years rehearsing the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen and then showing them in unlikely places. Perhaps his most famous setting was the scarily crumbling ruin of a Times Square theater for the show that became Louis Malle’s last film, the great “Vanya on 42nd Street.”

“Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner” is an extraordinary new documentary about this 78-year-old director. The title echoes “My Dinner With Andre,” Malle’s earlier movie about a long evening Gregory spent with his favorite actor, Wallace Shawn.

The new film is directed by Gregory’s wife, Cindy Kleine. Engaging and funny, if intermittently self-indulgent, it’s a tribute to the couple and their circle, and to his growing up comfortably in Paris, New York and Hollywood before turning to the downtown theater scene.

Hitler Spy

But there’s an electrifying scene in which Gregory, raised by “Jews who forgot to tell their children that they were Jews,” learns that his father -- whom he believed to have been a refugee from Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany -- probably survived World War II by serving as a financial spy for Hitler.

A successful businessman whose work took him to the European capitals, the father freely operated in circles of keen interest to Hitler’s advisers, who were looking for ways to undermine international economies.

Researchers hired by Gregory and Kleine in Paris and Berlin comb through documents, concluding that it seems impossible that the family could have survived without the protection of the Third Reich.

The image of this jolly raconteur’s face shriveling into tears as he tells the story is one I won’t soon forget.

“Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” from Cinema Guild, is running in New York at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston St. Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Alec McCabe on books and Frederik Balfour’s interview with chef Ferran Adria.

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