On a bare stage in the Afro-American Cultural Center a young woman is crying. She is reading a letter from her lover that attempts to explain why their relationship has ended. So begins “The Last Five Years,” a theater studies senior project for Elissa Yudofsky ’03 that is an emotional and riveting collection of songs about beginning and ending, love and loss, and the humor that we try to find in between.

The plot follows Cathy Hiatt (Yudofsky), a struggling actress, from the time of the couple’s breakup back to their first encounter; simultaneously, the play follows boyfriend Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and–coming writer (Andy Sanberg ’05), from the couple’s first date to their eventual separation. The structure of the show, while at first hard to grasp, eventually becomes the play’s focus.

Sanberg and Yudofsky are convincing as a couple in love — a feat which is all the more remarkable given the two rarely speak directly to each other. Their chemistry is tangible, though they make physical contact only once. The near misses of their relationship are emphasized by clever blocking — the lovers frequently cross paths and seem to almost brush against each other, but remain in their own space and time.

Both Sanberg and Yudofsky are gifted actors and strong singers. Yudofsky’s sweet voice is complemented by her honest acting style; she is angelic, especially in the play’s tender moments. Unfortunately, a handful of sensitive moments are interrupted by noisy scene changes.

In “See I’m Smiling,” Yudofsky captures perfectly the optimistic naivete one so often finds at the end of relationships — the “it will be OK” attitude that tries to fight back tears. The drama’s vocal lines are complemented by an equally sensitive musical combo which underscores the action throughout.

Yudofsky also does great justice to the comic aspects of the play, especially in “A Summer in Ohio.” In the song, a kind of actor’s lament about the undignified aspects of performance, she is remarkably funny as she quips about other characters — from her ex–stripper roommate and midget costar, who never appear.

Sanberg shines as well. In “A Miracle Would Happen,” a hilarious portrayal of the temptation and sexual frustration that can accompany marriage, Jamie is amusingly distraught. Literally ripping his hair out, he riffs on the pitfalls of monogamy while dancing in smiley–face boxers. Like Yudofsky, Sanberg has a great sense of character. “Nobody Needs to Know,” a confessional song where Jamie admits his infidelity, is surprisingly touching. Sanberg shows sensitivity with grace, revealing the pain and the guilt without degrading the strength he has built into the character of Jamie during the show.

In the end, the show literally returns to the beginning: Cathy is shown at the start of the relationship just as Jamie is writing her his goodbye letter. Rather than leaving the audience bewildered by this seeming opposition, “The Last Five Years” ends with a hopeful message — even as we lose the ones we love, perhaps we can look forward to the next five years.