Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stuck in the middle with Will

Marianna Bassham, stuck in Middletown.  Photo: Stratton McCrady
I left Middletown (at the Actors' Shakespeare Project through March 10) wondering exactly how a playwright as bright as Will Eno could have written a play quite this boring.  

Like a lot of people, I was struck by Eno's spiky monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) a few years back, so I was quite excited to see one of his full-length plays. But just a few minutes into Middletown I was checking my watch, and by the end of the first act I was all but climbing the walls - although I can't really blame director Doug Lockwood's slightly-light but generally perceptive production; despite a Quirky-with-a-capital-Q decision to angle the audience sideways to the stage (ASP likes playing hide-and-seek behind pillar and post), the talented ensemble essayed intelligent and sensitive performances, and delivered Eno's lyrical non sequiturs with just the right spritz of unspoken pathos.

Indeed much of the production is pitch-perfect; that's the problem. This is what Eno wanted, I kept telling myself, as I wondered why, exactly, being trapped in a bad play is so exquisitely insufferable; why is it so much worse than waiting for two hours in an airport, for instance?  I'm not sure - although perhaps it's that you never feel the airport begging for applause or approval.  It doesn't care about you, but it also doesn't care whether you care about it.

But a garrulous (if soft-spoken) playwright is quite a different thing, particularly one with only a single idea.  For it turns out Middletown, like Thom Pain, is a monologue, albeit a monologue for chorus; there's but one voice here, and one perspective; indeed Middletown only counts as a "play" because it has been rather obviously draped over the borrowed scaffold of Our Town.

You get the impression Eno thinks he's subverting that warhorse in a sneakily awesome way with his quizzical re-enactment of its themes.  All I can say is - if only!  For here Thornton Wilder's rubrics of Everyday Life, Courtship, and Death all wilt under the Aspberger's-Syndrome treatment that is by now the default mode of millennial theatre; no one in Middletown can connect, everything is pointlessly questioned, logic runs inevitably toward contradiction, etc., etc., and oooh look at this funny little thing I noticed about human behavior; isn't that formally interesting?

Sigh.  Yes, kids, you're ironically sweet and clever as hell, and you know just how to sell that, too (Middletown is obvious Charles Isherwood bait) but God, are you ever monotonous; to be fair to Eno, his jokes do sometimes land (it helps if you're in college, either as student or teacher), but they battle a relentless undertow of boredom, because his play, like a lot of plays these days, doesn't really have a reason to exist. And honestly, at forty-something, isn't this author a bit old to be twirling his hair and sighing ruefully, all while doodling on somebody else's text, like Annie Baker or Sarah Ruhl? Aren't we tired of millennial autism yet?  How about somebody writes - oh I don't know - a villain for a change.  Or a hero?  With a goal?  I know it sounds crazy - but how about it, huh?

Okay, right now every literary manager in America is doubled over in laughter at the sheer gaucherie of such a suggestion.  (Only a white male would even think of that! That would be like so awkward!) And again to be fair, maybe it's Eno's bad luck that we just saw a stunning revival of Our Town, so his miniature critique, seemingly sculpted out of a single bar of responsibly-sourced soap, looks even smaller than it otherwise would.  Although hang on, I agree, there are "mysteries" secreted in its various lacunae. (Whose baby is really born in the last act? And why the Native American war dance in whiteface?) But honestly, who cares; I'd prefer a little action instead.  And contrary to Charles Isherwood's vapid suggestion, this is NOT Samuel Beckett, because there's no expanding frame of artistic reference; Middletown gets sadder (and sadder), but it doesn't get any deeper. And I think even those who missed David Cromer's re-invention of Our Town will remember the shocking emotional boomerang of that play's finale: what had seemed a sentimental reminiscence, shot through with starchy wit, suddenly becomes a devastating comment on death.  Here death is just one more reminder that we're all stuck in the middle of something that we cannot understand.  Which is very true, but Eno has been saying it for two hours by now.

Oh well, here's the part where I get repetitive.  Once again I was struck by the pathos of talented actors struggling to put over thin material.  The ASP cast is quite fine across the board; I don't know why director Doug Lockwood (who is an acquaintance of mine) was attracted to this text, but he has certainly drawn an exquisite ensemble performance (probably one of the year's best) from his cast.  Marianna Bassham, Michael Forden Walker, Steven Barkhimer, Paula Langton and Gabriel Kuttner are all known quantities, and have often been praised in these pages.  The news here is that local hottie Grant MacDermott, who has always shown potential, delivers by far the best work he has ever done, and two young actresses make their first major impression on the professional scene.  I've admired the lovely Esme Allen and Margaret Lamb before in either minor roles or student productions (Lamb just graduated from Boston Conservatory).  Here they steal almost every scene they're in.  Both could shine as any number of classical heroines; but I imagine they'll be stuck doing variations of millennial melancholy for some time yet.

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