Middletown

Melinda Schupmann Reviews - Theater
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With an extended prologue that welcomes a vast cross section of humanity into Will Eno's more-than-slightly surreal tale of life in a small town, the story puzzles, delights, and annoys, sometimes all at once. It explores those basic issues of life, death, and love that always seem too elusive to understand but inspire dramatists to paint a word picture that will invoke introspection.

Middletown is populated by Cop, Mechanic, Librarian, Tour Guide, and the like, who interact with the main protagonists, Mary Swanson (Lola Kelly) and John Dodge (James McHale), as their stories play out over time. Mary has just moved to Middletown with her husband, who is strangely absent, and there is an immediate connection between John and Mary that persists in spite of the obvious impediments.

It is clear from the beginning as Cop says, "Middletown. Population: stable; elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions," that this is not going to be predictable at all. Language is going to be the star of the show, and what transpires is intended to be elucidating and mystifying all at the same time. When newcomer Mary asks the Librarian for a library card, she replies, "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.' Let me just find the form."

The humor and offbeat quirkiness of Eno's script saves the sometimes arty and slightly pretentious nature of philosophy uttered as normal conversation. The characters are meant to interpret life, even as they don't understand it themselves, which frequently leads to some rather bizarre exchanges and leaves the audience often scratching its collective head.

McHale is a standout as the befuddled, flawed, and ultimately tragic figure who can't quite navigate life successfully. Kelly makes a fine foil for his equivocations, projecting an innocence and normalcy in this offbeat hometown atmosphere.

Ned Liebl makes a fine Mechanic as he ponders his existence, often as a introspective drunk  In other roles, Ahmed T. Brooks, Robert Foran, Karen Webster, Karen O'Hanlon, and Marissa LeDoux acquit themselves well as they portray a passing parade of small town denizens.

Eno throws in a few odd moments that feel contrived for theatrical effect. A reference to the Indian history of the town brings an Indian to the second act in full regalia for a cameo. Space clad astronauts float by in a sea of swirling lights. Though this adds to the timeless sense of life in the cosmos, it is often jarring.

Bruce Goodrich's effective scenic honeycomb of cubes provides an opportunity for symbolism and utility on the Chance's smaller second stage. Megan MacLean's offbeat costumes encompassing  a undefined time period add to the general idiosyncratic nature of the show. Lighting by Karen D. Lawrence and sound by Ryan Brodkin also enhance the production.

Director Trevor Biship understands the unique quality of Eno's work, as evidenced by his ability to create believable characters even as they often come off as strange or cryptic. He creates a cohesive whole in an existential narrative.

This is a play that causes you to have to think as you are watching it and makes you wish for a remote that could freeze frame the action as you take a moment to ponder. It is ambitious and worthwhile for a theater company to tackle.