BWW Review: MIDDLETOWN Crackles With Wit and Sparkles With Style
MIDDLETOWN is an essentially plotless play by Will Eno, which was the winner of the 2010 Horton Foote Award for Most Promising New Play. Like Thornton Wilder's Our Town before it, MIDDLETOWN looks at our existence between life and death, or, the middle. What MIDDLETOWN achieves that Our Town doesn't, at least for me, is that it succeeds through a crackling wit and the usual Eno word play to remind us that it is the every day minutiae that make us all human. It also is a refreshing reminder that we all need to stop and take the time to appreciate just how achingly painful yet weird and wonderful life here as a human truly is.
The setup is provided by the Cop (J. Ben Wolfe) who acts as quasi narrator for Middletown: "Population: stable; elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions." Except for Mrs. Swanson (Michlynn Langlois), a soon-to-be mother, who's also a Middletown newcomer, and John Dodge (Patrick Byers), all the characters have generic denominations, though the name of the town's biggest failure, the Mechanic (Eric Bradley) is mentioned at the end of the play, along with the names of the Cop and the Llibrarian (Jacqui Cross).
Eno's play seamlessly goes from such diverse views as the philosophy of a Landscaper (John Ferraro) planting a tree in the town square to that of an astronaut looking down from outer space. These everyday philosophers of Middletown are the tour guides, librarians, and janitors who always seem to be self-conscious about their philosophizing. Except for the friendship between the jack of all trades John Dodge and young Mrs. Swanson, there are no real relationships, nor are there any families lives to view and no romances to watch blossom and bloom. Eno offers us more or less the portrait of an everyman town as a way to dramatize the universal sense of loneliness we all experience, by raising those unanswerable questions about everything that happens between life and death. There is the sense that there could be something between Dodge and Swanson, but she's married, so that's a dead end...just like all of us have experienced: the attraction to the unavailable.
Director Robert Talaro has done a masterful job with this script, from bookending the proceedings with a cast carrying window frames while Jacqui Cross sings to the poetic sheen he has provided to the proceedings. His blocking makes the most effective use I have seen of the balconies at the Mary Moody theater. Ia Enstera's set is both minimalist and multipurpose and quite lovely overall, in these muted small town craft colors. Susan Branch Towne's costumes work perfectly. Rachel Atkinson's lighting design is gorgeous, especially in the astronaut scene with the beautiful growing earth projection.
The performances here are all solid and some of them are remarkable. J. Ben Wolfe is great as the befuddled and aggressive Cop. Jacqui Cross is charming as the slightly pixilated and unbearably cheerful yet befuddled Librarian. Patrick Byers is superb as John Dodge, successfully handling the unique rhythms of Eno and delivering a heartbreaking performance. Eric Bradley, as the Mechanic, is a study in unease and addiction, alive with physical tics and all with a believable delivery. He also does a breathtaking native American dance. I also quite enjoyed the performance of John Ferraro the Landscaper.
Eno's MIDDLETOWN, while decidedly darker than Wilder's take on small town America, reaches into corners of our soul that he never touched and, for me, has created a far more engaging work. The current production at St. Edwards is sparkling Eno, crackling with wit and full of style that is packed with some very engaging performances. The citizens of MIDDLETOWN may be tinged with a vaguely surreal aura but they offer luminous moments of connection with this playful and poetic wink that may draw us all just a tiny bit closer to grasping the muddled meaning of life.
MIDDLETOWN by Will Eno
Running Time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours, including intermission
MIDDLETOWN produced by St. Edwards University at Mary Moody Northen Theatre (3001 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX, 78704).
Thursdays-Sundays, September 27 - October 07, 2018
All performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Student discount nights: Saturday, September 28 and Thursday, October 4: $10 ticket with any Student ID. Box office hours are 1-5 p.m. Monday-Friday when classes are in session and one hour prior to curtain. Group rates for 10 people or more are available. Information: 512-448-8484
Mary Moody Northen Theatre is located at St. Edward's University along Campus Drive. Campus map: http://www.stedwards.edu/map/maincampus.