Attempting (with much success) to be simultaneously expansive and exacting, playwright Will Eno’s “Middletown” is a kind of hybrid between delicate realism and existential absurdity, with each sensibility offering a window into the other. With a script that teeters between expounding on the miracles in every moment of life and dismissing our mere existence as ultimately inconsequential, director Les Waters (along with an impressive cast) works to establish a reason for this show to be on stage and (more importantly) a reason for an audience to care.
There are no easy answers, and what’s more, not even easy questions in Middletown, a medium-sized hamlet of population “stable.” In fact, even contemplating the word “rock” can stop a conversation in its tracks. A policeman (Danny McCarthy), a mechanic (Michael Patrick Thornton), a librarian (Martha Lavey), a housewife (Brenda Barrie), a handyman (Tracy Letts), a few doctors and nurses and a number of other characters flit through Antje Ellermann’s flexible (if somewhat patchwork) town set as this story of “everything between birth and death” unfolds in a jumble: beguiling, confounding and simplistic all at once.
At one point the handyman remarks to the housewife that he uses humor to distance himself from pain. And that seems to be what Eno is constantly attempting here. The humorous interludes, meta-observations and sometimes ridiculous wordplay are all serving to distract, to inject a sense of fun and playfulness into the proceedings. Without them we’d be left with a two-act rumination on how lonely life can be and the sheer magnitude of its meaninglessness. The juxtaposition of comedy and despair doesn’t always work, but when it does (most often when Letts or Thornton are involved) it takes you by surprise. There are few moments here that will floor you in your seat but there are plenty that will stick with you for several days afterwards.