The play unfolds in a succession of interactions between the quirky characters of the nowhere and everywhere town of Middletown. The houses may look like they come from the set of Leave it to Beaver and the music that populates the play might have come from a 60’s Tupperware commercial, but the townsfolk of Middletown are anything but shiny, happy people.
Is it really necessary to leave the gravitational bonds of earth to fully understand that human loneliness is a beast of our own making? In Will Eno’s 2010 play, Middletown, directed by Kyle Sturdivant at The Catastrophic Theatre, the answer seems to be decidedly yes. It’s a lesson served up to us near the end of the second act when a lone and isolated astronaut (Greg Dean) waxes poetic to ground control from his ambiguous orbit above earth. Our planet, he declares, is not only beautiful in its perfect roundness, but in the people down there all one breath away from connecting and being and living. But make no mistake, Middletown, is neither space age fantasy nor hokey Hallmark musings. This is a play set firmly on the ground that examines the eccentricities of human birth, death and everything in between with pathos, humour and at times a tongue very firmly planted in its own cheek. It’s also a play that has been beautifully and simply brought to life by Sturdivant and his stellar cast.
The play unfolds in a succession of interactions between the quirky characters of the nowhere and everywhere town of Middletown. The houses may look like they come from the set of Leave it to Beaver and the music that populates the play might have come from a 60’s Tupperware commercial, but the townsfolk of Middletown are anything but shiny, happy people. There’s newcomer Mrs. Swanson (the soothing and lovely Patricia Swanson) who is attempting to have a baby despite her husband’s more than frequent business trips and her own fears of motherhood. For friendship she turns to John Dodge (a wonderfully anxious yet tender Kevin Lusignolo), the sweet but smart loser endlessly between jobs and ill-equipped to deal with life’s bumps on his own. It’s these two that Eno focuses our attention on as a kind of grounding relationship by which to measure the rest of the town.
These other characters fall neatly within the usual suspects category if the usual suspects all had their manufacturer’s warranty expired and experiencing an electrical short of one kind of another. A prickly fourth-wall breaking cop (played with wonderful contained boil by Rutherford Cravens) craves human connection despite his distance, violence and disgust. The mother figure librarian (a wonderfully saccharine Lyndsay Sweeney) gives to everyone but has obsessions of her own. An obstetrician (the hilarious Xzavien Hollins), jas a bedside manner that alternates between soothingly informative and existentially alarming. Most attention grabbing however is Craig (a spectacular Kevin Sturdivant doing double time as Director/Actor), the drug addicted town mechanic/nut who has the singular ability to rifle through garbage for pills while articulating with heartbreaking suscintness what he wants out of life. “I want to be beautiful….I want to know love.” It’s a line that hits up between the eyes as tragic in equal parts because we know Craig will never find either of these things and because while other townsfolk may, their ignorance of the desire might keep them from it.
Smartly Eno doesn’t bog us down with the sadly deep and profound to make his point. Middletown finds our funny bone in enough places to keep us interested and out of the human existence doldrums for too long. Of particular note are a pair of jaded dilettante tourists (played with perfect comic timing by Kevin Jones and Amy Bruce) who collect esoteric meaning in travel experiences which they then wear like a gifted jewelry they may exchange for more expensive bobbles. Lonely and disconnected this couple may be, but damn if we arent’ going to laugh at them anyway. Additionally, Eno inlcudes a brilliant playwright “screw-you” just before intermission that loops the time continuum by including a scene of audince members at the intermission of a production of Middletown. “I think there may be a romance brewing between Mary and John”, one patron says. Oh dear we think. Are we really going to end up in cliche land in the second act. Rest assured, Eno is in on the jokle and very happy not to go there.
Sturdivant matches Eno’s witty script and loopy arcs with elegantly efficient direction that intelligently brings simplicity to the stage and gets out-of-the-way of the play. The juxtaposition of the controlled zaniness in the script and Sturdivant’s pared down direction and Ryan McGettigan’s set design elicits a deliciously surreal effect that serves not only the dialogue but generously lets each one of thecast members shine. Middletown may be a musing on human connection and our ability or inability to find it, but this terrific production has no problem connecting with the audience, our funny bone or our thinking cap.
For comedy enthusiasts – I suppose the comedy could be described as a cocktail blender of Wes Anderson meets Wallace Shawn with a soupcon of Nietzsche thrown in. However that doesn’t quite cover it. Point is, yes you’ll laugh if your sense of humour runs in the eccentric direction. But be warned that things take a darker turn in the second act. However, sometimes it’s good to get a little vegetables in with your sweets. SEE IT
For drama enthusiasts – Yes there is meaning galore in this philosophically circular play. After all, you can’t write a play about loneliness and human dis-connection and not have something to say. But deep doesn’t mean dour in this play. Humour abounds and laugh you will. But after all, all work and no play makes for a dull boy. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – I’m not sure the words eccentric, esoteric or philosophical are bull’s-eye to your theatre preferences. Yes the narrative is more or less linear, the comedy is accessible and there is a plot to be had, but the packaging of this play may be too off the beaten track for your liking. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – OK smarty-pants – yes you’ll see the cheeky nod to Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town. And yes, Eno was intentional in his send up of the genre. But Middletown deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits. It’s an intelligently wry and clever look at the human condition directed here with panache and performed with immense talent. SEE IT