BWW Reviews: MIDDLETOWN Is Home to All of Us at Third Rail
I see a lot of plays where I need to withhold plot descriptions in order not to ruin surprises for those of you who haven't yet seen the production. Sometimes I see plays where I can't follow what's happening, and so I don't know how to describe them. Will Eno's Middletown, which just opened at Third Rail, is such an unusual theatrical experience that I don't even have the vocabulary to tell you about it.
Some have compared it to Our Town, and I can see the similarities, but Our Town focuses on the milestones in life - falling in love, getting married, dying. Middletown is more smart-ass and also more mundane. People think about the big questions in life, but they also get bogged down in the little everyday things like planting trees and fixing drains. Most of us are just trying to get from day to day dealing with those annoyances. Yes, we think about stopping to smell the roses, but who has time between work and chores and paying the bills? Middletown seems to be a modern, contemporary place, yet no one has a cell phone or a laptop, and the characters speak to each other directly - or to us.
There are monologues, many of them, each different in tone and texture. Eno's language is just a little heightened, just enough to make us laugh at the odd thoughts that pop into the characters' minds. Director Marcella Crawson does a wonderful job of keeping things grounded, letting the poetic speeches drift off into the air, and the laughs are greater for that airiness. But when the play does address matters of life and death, it becomes unexpectedly moving, and yet never loses its humor.
The cast of ten is uniformly terrific, capturing the language beautifully and making the characters both archetypical and very specific. Michael O'Connell and Maureen Porter have the central roles, as a man and woman who strike up an unlikely friendship, and they bring great humanity to the piece. Ben Newman does wonderful work as a mechanic who's fond of wondering (and wandering), and he has so much joy in his performance that you smile at him every time he walks on stage. Darius Pierce has several small but pivotal roles, including one that opens the performance, and he is delightful in each of his assignments. The other actors are just as good, many of them playing multiple roles, and gradually you start to see small connections among the characters they play.
Creating a convincing locale for such a play is tricky, but scenic designer Curt Enderle creates magic, with a small central area framed by a stage that becomes a number of scenes. You may wonder what some of the scenic elements are doing on the stage when you first see it revealed, but trust me, they're all there for good reason. As usual at Third Rail, the technical and design work is specific and excellent, and adds to the enjoyment of the play.
Middletown is a frustrating play to describe because I want to tell you everything that made me love it, and yet I don't want to tell you anything about it. I want you to go see it and experience it for yourself. You will smile, laugh, and talk back to the play, and you will want to see it with someone you can discuss it with afterwards. Lucky me - I get to discuss it with all of you.