Will Eno’s Middletown is an agile, meandering play about life: spectrums, spans, gradations, scales, and the individual’s compulsive quest to locate and quantify himself amid all these ranges of possibility. Unlike Eno’s 2005 hit monologue Thom Pain, Middletown has 10 actors playing about two dozen characters in a series of town-centric vignettes.
Starting with its title, threads of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town weave through the play’s wry, eerie tapestry of place. Like Wilder’s stage manager, the “Public Speaker” (R. Hamilton Wright) welcomes us, but not with situational or background information about the town. Rather, he attempts to welcome everyone in the universe, literally, which includes “the poorly depicted, people who are still teething, who are looking for a helping verb, the quote beautiful, the unquote beautiful, whose bones are just so, whose veins are just so, the drunk, the high, the blue, the down . . . ” The list goes on for over three minutes and introduces the tone of the 2010 play: an earnest, dissonant yearning that vibrates between grandiosity and humility, kind of like an Oscar speech. “I know I’m forgetting somebody,” the Public Speaker flails, consulting his tiny index card of notations. Such scrupulous inclusion and endearing intent leaves little doubt that, whoever you are, you are meant to be here. This play’s for you. As manifested in this excellent production, directed by John Langs, it probably is.
In another nod to Wilder, Jennifer Zeyl’s set austerely outlines two adjacent houses on risers—though unlike Wilder’s neighbors, their inhabitants don’t know each other yet. New to town and married to someone who travels a lot, Mary (Alexandra Tavares) quickly meets jack-of-various-unsatisfying-trades John (Eric Riedmann). As awkward as that meeting is (he’s riddled with anxiety), chaste sparks fly as these two random humans, lonely in their own ways, find themselves liking each other. It feels bizarre, irrational, wonderful; and their subsequent friendship provides scaffolding for what story there is here.
But the majority of scenes are free-standing encounters between various denizens, a collection of moments that more closely approximates the rhythm of real-life experience than a more tightly escalating structure would. Eno doles out exposition via whatever guerrilla methods strike his fancy: the town librarian reading from Google; a tour guide concocting town history; characters directly addressing the audience with their innermost thoughts. Thankfully, Eno’s wit and brio, along with mostly feather-light acting and the succulent unreliability of the information, make it a palatable swallow.
And often a very funny swallow, laced with myriad instants of absurdity. A female visitor on the town tour (Sarah Harlett) tries to explain to the tour guide (Renata Friedman) how she and her husband are not typical tourists looking for typical things: “We always sort of want something more, I guess because there’s a long history of death in both our families.” How desperately everyone is striving to be different, to distinguish him- or herself from the lumpen clot of humanity. Later, in a fantastic meta-scene supposedly set during intermission (don’t get up just yet, a real intermission will follow), five fake audience members banter like a Chekhovian chorus. “I’m writing a book on being an audience member. Originally, I wanted to be an autobiographer,” blathers Wright’s ticket-buyer. “But then I had to sit down and ask myself, ‘Seriously? Me?’ ” Another patron (Aaron Blakely) accidentally breaks his chair. Then there’s a mentally handicapped gal blurting enigmatic snippets from the play; in this role and beyond, Friedman’s incongruous intensity—better suited to her solo performance in The K of D a few years back—doesn’t quite mesh with the naturalism and rich polyphonies Langs teases from his cast.
By contrast, the John and Mary scenes are very much “working scenes” in the playwright’s handbook; and it’s a lot of work to dramatically prop up Eno’s loosely associated vignettes. Lacking the breezy informality that yields amusing surprises elsewhere in the play, it falls to them to illustrate the life cycle in its most climactic moments. Tavares, blessed with a “rainbow” face—which can be rainy and sunny at the same time—has no trouble riveting us all the way through to the predictable culminating contrivance. Even so, the second act doesn’t really escalate/complicate/mature so much as veer toward soap opera.
Though generally pitch-perfect in their poetic deployments, Eno’s situations sometimes try too hard. It seems mighty convenient that Middletown launched an astronaut—Blakely, outfitted in a bug-zapper-like illuminated helmet—with whom we journey to outer space. Replete with a curved, planetarium-like wall lit full of stars by Ben Zamora, the scene piggybacks on the shared cultural awe inspired by the first moonwalk. But clichés here are never unacknowledged. The astronaut criticizes his own unoriginal thoughts, even while generating more original ones. The universal and the specific forever commingle: big/small, far/close, important/insignificant.
Perhaps as a way of showing that all humans are made of similar psychological matter (where most other plays try to suggest otherwise), all the characters in Middletown share certain traits, like curiosity about words (everyone’s always parsing and puzzling), confusion about their purpose here, and an ongoing metabolic volley between plenitude and bereftness. As if obeying a cosmic EKG pattern, their moods almost invariably follow the same wave: high-low-middle. Each surge of self-assertion gets checked by a jolt of self-effacement, before settling in some central place of acceptance. Steady as the ancient heart of the future. Middletown, population: everybody.
MIDDLETOWN ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $41 and up. 8 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Ends Sept. 29.