"Do you realize what a miracle it is just to sit in a chair?" remarks Mary Swanson, one of the principal characters in Middletown, by Will Eno, currently playing at Manbites Dog Theater Company in downtown Durham. This type of statement of appreciation of the simple pleasures of life alternates with acerbic, vitriolic and often quite funny attacks against the human race in what can best be described as a smart-alecky Our Town. Somewhat like the narrator in that American classic by Thornton Wilder, Middletown starts out with a welcoming monologue by Chris Burner (who like several of the actors plays multiple roles). This approximately eight minute preamble encapsulates all of the good and bad in this play and sets the mood for the two hour running time to come.
We first meet "the cop" played with a mixture of goofy affableness and barely concealed sadism by David J. Berberian. He takes the handoff in describing the town of Middletown as just your average small town: "Things are fairly predictable, People come, people go." When he adds "Crying, by the way, in both directions" we are alerted early on that we will be entering a David Lynch-type universe where the mundane can be quite terrifying. The Cop then proceeds to attempt to strangle the town mechanic (Jeffrey M. Moore) who is quietly sitting on a bench not bothering anyone. Mr. Moore's portrayal of the mechanic was a combination of someone who was slightly retarded and also ravaged by years of drinking. The mechanic also served as another character who directly addressed the audience and commented on the action, as it were.
This is a very talky, evenly distributed among the roles, play, yet if you'd have to pick the two central roles it would have to be the relationship between Mary Swanson (Madeleine Lambert) and John Dodge (Thaddeus Edwards). Mary, and her unseen husband, has just moved to Middletown and she comes across as a sad, bland character until she meets the befuddled, witty and charming John. Their conversations are the highlights of the play: think of Neil Simon on acid. The existential back-and-forth and the "I know what you mean" comic observations of the ordinary task of living are broken as John attempts suicide and ends up in a hospital bed, as his attempt leads to success. This ultimate "tears of a clown" scenario rings a false note despite the excellent portrayal by Mr. Edwards.
The first half ends with an oft-used device (some would say gimmick) of actors planted in the audience who comment on the preceding action and character relationships. There is a wonderful special effects and lighting scene that replicates a spacewalk (one of the bragging rights of the town is that it is the residence of a former astronaut). The set is a simple but functional depiction of John and Mary's apartments in the background, and varying props at the boundary between audience and "stage." In addition to those already mentioned, Bart Matthews plays a collection of five different characters that all seem to have identical cores; Chaunesti Webb gives a sympathetic portrayal of a doctor, especially in her scene with the mechanic and Barbara Dickinson showed us that even schoolmarm-type librarians can have a dark and mysterious side.
"Leave 'em wanting more" was one of the adages of the Vaudeville era, and that is every bit as applicable today. In the end, or at least as the end was nearing, Middletown began unraveling under the weight of its comic/existential/morbid combination and the simple fact that it is quite difficult to sustain a constant dialogue for two hours before fatigue descends upon the viewer. This is unfortunate since for at least two thirds of the production, it is engrossing, sharply witty and sardonic, and the ensemble was swinging in a nice rhythm.
Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Is there any point to any of this? Obviously this not only has consumed the thoughts of man through the ages, but has been a subject of literature and theater since, well, since forever. Middletown, using the background of modern small town America, is a recent entry into this genre and, like all the others, does not, and does not pretend to answer these ultimately unanswerable questions. So, come laugh at the absurdity of it all and celebrate the miracle of watching excellent theatre.
Note: Middletown continues through October 15. For details, see the sidebar.