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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While Middletown is indeed an Our Town of sorts, don't count on the same homespun pleasures that have made Wilder's play one of our most durable stage classics. Unlike David Cromer's off-Broadway production which was a terrific re-conceived staging but remained true to Wilder's narrative, Will Eno's Middletown is a totally new play. Oh, sure, people come and go, give birth and die. But this is a more contemporary setting. Those who leave include an astronaut, its doctor character knows all about sonograms and other modern techniques. (However, there are no sign cell phones, TV antennas, or mentions of departing factories likely to lead to a large scale exodus.)
Most of all, Eno's vision is darker and more distancing than Wilder's. Except for Mrs. Swanson (Heather Burns), a young married woman and soon-to-be mother, who's a Middletown newcomer, and John Dodge (Linus Roache), all the characters have generic name tags, though the names of the town's biggest failure, the alcoholic Mechanic (James McMenamin) and the Cop (Michael Park) are mentioned briefly towards the end of the play. This wouldn't keep us from identifying with them as one does with Wilder's Grovers' Corners' citizens, if there wasn't something slightly off about all of them.
Even the cheery Librarian (Georgia Engel) is more than just a bit eccentric. She's vaguely puzzled by the fact that the library's books on childbirth are in the business section and there's something about her wide-eyed, almost childlike line readings that supports the feeling that Middletown and its residents are tinged with a vaguely surreal aura. This is underscored by the way the Cop peeks into the windows of homes on streets he's patrolling and how he at one point becomes so removed from his potential Town Manager persona that he viciously attacks the Mechanic. with his night stick. There are also two scenes which seem to belong in another play but happen to be quite funny: one that finds a free lance writer (Ed Jewett) an aunt (Joanna Day) and her not too swift niece (Olivia Scott) watching a play; another with a tour guide (McKenna Kerrigan) and two customers for the daily tour of the town which seems devoid of enough attractions to warrant them (Jewett again with Cindy Cheung).
Except for the friendship between the always at loose ends and probably manic-depressive John Dodge and young Mrs. Swanson, there are no real relationship. Neither is there any family life to witness, no romances to watch blossom and mature. This, as well as the playwright's penchant for long monologues (David Garrison's amazing introductory super mouthful is a highlight for its content as well as Garrison's bravura non-stop delivery) underscores the audience's being more impressed with Mr. Eno's linguistic talent than emotionally connected to his characters. But then that may be exactly the playwright's intent since this is less a nostalgic portrait of a an everyman kind of town rather than setting used as a seedbed for dramatizing universal loneliness and raising unanswered (and unanswerable) questions about life and death and everything that happens in between.
David Zinn's set design provides just enough details. The cast, overall is excellent. Ken Rus Schmoll succeeds only sporadically in seeing to it that the pacing and performances support the real-surreal elements. Mr. Eno, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer with his Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), though it divided audiences into those who loved it and those who didn't. Middletown is likely to meet with the same divided response.
Will Eno plays reviewed at Curtainup
The Flu Season Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)
Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations