‘Middletown’ production populated with stand-up comedians

Near the end of Will Eno's "Middletown," two hospital workers discuss a patient, and one recalls a simple, touching thank-you comment he once made. She's so moved that she returns to the subject later.

That's revealing not only about the patient, but about Eno's comedy-drama. Rather than let the audience witness the man's kindness, Eno keeps the encounter at a distance. In "Middletown," life is talked about more than seen.

The show, running at Catastrophic Theatre through June 14, is set in a small town with the same name as the play; its denizens eagerly introduce themselves and their surroundings to the audience. But Eno's goal is bigger than creating a picture of a village or its people: The largest questions of human existence are on his mind.

"Middetown" is full of witty and philosophical observations about life. But Eno's approach to creating a funny, soulful play is to populate the stage with characters who spout funny or soulful comments almost nonstop. There's little time left for them to do much living.

The play quickly introduces a gallery of offbeat characters, including a police officer who avidly and mostly sympathetically monitors the townspeople, even when they're in their homes; an auto mechanic who's literally a man-about-town, popping up everywhere; and a librarian eager to connect visitors with books. The library is where we meet the play's central figures: John, a handyman who's between real jobs, and Mary, a young woman who's husband always is away.

John and Mary, who long to fill holes in their lives, establish a rapport. About the closest "Middletown" comes to a plot is that each of the two experiences a major event in Act 2, which is set in a hospital; by that time, John and Mary have become the closest thing "Middletown" has to believable characters.

Eno has a gift for delivering humor and meaning by giving familiar expressions a twist. John, explaining why he checks out so many books from the library, says he's "bent on self-improvement." The mechanic, musing that most people never think about how lucky they are, points out that he has. After a pause, he good-naturedly gives his verdict: "I'm not that lucky."

The catch is that most of the characters sound the same, as if they're simply mouthpieces for Eno's jokes and meditations.

In Act 1, which plays up humor, the witticisms come so fast that you might think Middletown is populated by stand-up comedians who can't wait to try out their material on one another. Some scenes feel more like comedy skits than scenes from a play.

Seriousness takes over in Act 2, and now, the former jokesters are hungry to ask whomever they encounter about the meaning of life. Events become melodramatic and, at one point, downright ludicrous: A doctor taking a break outside the hospital chats soulfully with the car mechanic, who has wandered by to rifle through a container marked HAZARDOUS WASTE. The physician merely cautions him not to cut himself.

With the jokes and meditations packed so densely into the script, "Middletown" tends toward a stiltedness that must challenge any set of actors, and Catastrophic Theatre's cast sometimes lets dialogue sound like punchlines or mini-sermons rather that conversations real people would have. But director Kyle Sturdivant, who also plays the auto mechanic, and his cast do find humanity at times.

Kevin Lusignolo and Patricia Duran, as John and Mary, are especially compelling as they reveal their characters' longing to understand their lives. When John says how nice Mary's voice sounds to him, not only does Duran's voice really come across as appealingly as he says, but Lusignolo also gains some of her melodiousness.

Sturdivant uncovers poignancy behind the auto mechanic's zaniness, and Rutherford Cravens brings out the policeman's compassion, especially when he commiserates outside the hospital with Lyndsay Sweeney's sweet-tempered librarian. Xzavien Hollins enables a harried physician's advice to exhibit touches of compassion despite its almost telegraphic brevity; Amy Bruce gives a less-rushed doctor a more meditative bent.

Ryan McGettigan's sets – especially the matching frameworks that suggest John's and Mary's homes – create a coziness that helps the cast bring out the play's flashes of genuineness. But "Middletown" suggests that Eno may be a little too clever a writer for his own good.