theater (reviews)

review: middletown

Middletown

By Will Eno
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Featuring Heather Burns, Johanna Day, Georgia Engel, Linus Roache
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E 15th Street
production web site

October 13, 2010 – November 21, 2010

  • “Main Street is named Main Street and the side streets are named after trees.” (cop on the beat)
  • “Middletown — we’ve got you coming and going.” (librarian on the range of books in the stacks, and more)
  • “The little person inside of you is going to come out of you.” (John to Mary on the imminent birth of her child) “It’s almost vaudevillian.” (Mary)

A town in the middle, with people in the middle, with lives in the middle, where no one is above average.  Welcome to the Twin Peaks meets Leave It To Beaver (there’s even an Eddie Haskell) meets The Andy Griffith Show world of small town America crafted by Wil Eno in Middletown.  Before the first word is spoken on stage we know the outlines of our world.  The edges of two suburban houses almost abut each other, like a Peanuts cartoon.

Levittown, New York

The set evokes Levitttown-suburban sprawl, middle class, middle American dream or middling mediocre middle-of-the-roadness.  And then we meet its inhabitants.  Meet John (Linus Roche) who has lived in Middletown all of his life, doing many things, keeping himself busy, Jack of all trades master of none, that kind of thing.  Meet Mary (Heather Burns) a new import who lives near John with her husband we never meet (he travels for work) and who talks about then gets pregnant and gives birth, of  course, by the play’s end.  Meet the unnamed librarian (Georgia Engel) and the unnamed female doctor (Johanna Day) and a cop on the beat (Michael Park) who loves this town and starts to tell us stories, but we soon realize he is interested in order rather than meaning, behavior rather than feelings.

This play won the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play in 2010.  As in Horton Foote’s plays, we focus in on the details of American life and the relationships in a small geographic space.  What does not feel like Foote’s work is the tone of this production — twee and sardonic and monotonic and never varying, never felt, never earnest, never true.   I imagine this play reads quite sweetly on the page.  I imagine another production might simply put these stories on the stage without self-conscious conceits.

Our female doctor is given the summing up, meaning of life lines in the second act.  Our cop and librarian are given this role in the first act. To John, who has attempted suicide, who has asked about the birth of Mary’s baby, the doctor says: “Those are just two events.  There is a lot in between”.  And “Irony is a people thing.  Nature is very frank.” And as advice for just keeping on: “Look ahead.  There are simple true things.”  And finally, the laugh line: “Botchalism.  I always thought it sounded like a philosophy of really bad choices.”

Without performances honed by a director to draw us into this world of small moments and closely observed characters who care for each other, we wonder where we’ve been.  In this production there is indeed one place we have been — a place no one on stage laughs or smiles or engages with the world much beyond sardonic delivery of sometimes quite amusing lines.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 2, 2010)

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