By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Welcome to Will Eno’s “Middletown.” A small but unusual hamlet in the middle of America. Apparently, everyone is invited. A local Public Speaker (Ned Salopek) hammers home this point at the start of the play by articulating a seemingly endless litany of various professions; stock brokers, dock workers, celebrities, nobodies, all comers, newcomers, the newly departed, the poorly depicted, et al. Everyone. It’s a lengthy preamble that stutters the opening like an old lawnmower on thick, wet grass.
Things do get moving when Mary Swanson (Mary Meyer) decides to make the bucolic community her new home. In the local library, she has a chance encounter with John Dodge (Eric Leslie). They bond over common traits; they are both profoundly lonely and socially awkward. Mary is a newlywed, but her husband is traveling. John, however, is divorced, between jobs (lots of jobs) and has plenty of time on his hands.
Along the way, Mary also meets a librarian (Charlotte Sonne), a cop (Jonathan Wilson), a mechanic (Bill Lyon) and scores of other denizens of this odd, little burg (the cast is a baker’s dozen clocking in with thirteen local performers).
Non-sequitur of the week: There’s an astronaut.
Middletown, it seems, is situated in a dark cranny between Emily Webb’s Grover’s Corners and Homer Simpsons’ Springfield (just like Springfield, the state is never named).
The mechanic is also the town drunk. Since Middletown isn’t Mayberry, the encounter between the town drunk and the cop is much more violent than any of Otis and Andy’s encounters.
It seems the citizens of Middletown are a little bit off. They are gloomy philosophers. Even the cop on patrol says, “People come. People go. Crying in both directions.” It’s a profound statement from such a ruffian. The play can be pretentious, but if you stick with it – especially to watch Mary and John’s unusual friendship unfold – it’s worth it.
“Middletown” is a surreal little play, but the humor comes when the character’s tilt at societal conventions, like Don Quixote at windmills. There are a lot of awkward conversations, lengthy pauses and inappropriate behavior, but that’s most of the fun. It is filled with very clever lines, dark humor and pithy wit. Unfortunately, “Middletown” gets bogged down by its loquacious characters. The townspeople wax philosophical a bit too much, and they all sound the same. Are all of these folks idiot savants?
The librarian is the spiritual centerpiece (you know she’s spiritual because she has a dream-catcher on her desk), but she’s also a bit daft. When Mary approaches the library desk and asks for a library card, the smiling librarian 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.”
Later in the play, she encourages the mechanic to keep on living remembering verbatim an essay he wrote as a child.
There’s also a weird concept in the dead center of the play. It’s like a long-form improvisational bit that doesn’t work, a meta-commentary from an alleged audience, like Statler and Waldorf picking apart “The Muppet Show.”
The play has some terrific turns by the aforementioned local actors. Meyer has a luminescent smile. She lights up the entire stage. She uses the smile sparingly here, but to great effect. She handles the material adroitly.
Leslie is sardonic and funny, perfectly cast as the downtrodden Dodge.
Lyon shines here. He gets laughs from simple lines. His delivery is flawless. There is a pain in the playwright’s humor and you can see it etched on Lyon’s face. It’s a nuanced performance.
Fatu Sheriff is a newcomer to the Little Lake stage. She portrays a doctor in a scene with Lyon’s mechanic and it’s one of the best scenes in the play; one of the few that has a beginning, middle and end. There’s a nice twist.
Sonne’s librarian and Wilson’s cop should get honorable mentions, but – the fault is with the playwright here – the characters are so inconsistent. When the seemingly sadistic cop loses his mother we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him, even though he nearly strangled a pedestrian out for a stroll earlier in the show.
“Middletown” isn’t the worst show, but it isn’t the best. It lives up to its moniker by being squarely in the middle. A contingent of very fine actors saved the evening.
“Middletown” runs till October 7 at the Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For more information, click here.