Review: “Middletown” by the New Haven Theater Company

Noah Golden

  • Connecticut Critic

“We all know that something is eternal and it ain’t houses and it ain’t names and it ain’t earth and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal and that something has to do with human beings.”

The Stage Manager says those words in Act III of “Our Town,” strolling through a graveyard on a rainy New England morning. In a show full of terrific Thornton Wilder quotes, that one has always stuck with me. What exactly is that elusive, eternal thing the Stage Manager is talking about?

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said something along the lines of “in order to criticize art, you have to make more art.” In many ways, Will Eno’s bittersweet “Middletown,” now playing at the New Haven Theater Company, is a two-act response to that “Our Town” line. It’s a meditation on nothing smaller than life itself; a quirky slice of Americana that illuminates the trials and tribulations of everyday people just trying to accomplish the Herculean task of going through life unbruised.

“When you think of all the miracles it takes just to sit in a chair. Billion things going right, just to sit here,” remarks Mary Swanson, a kind yet plain women who recently moved to Middletown, a suburban hamlet in Anywhere, USA. Played by Chrissy Gardner in a sincere and down-to-earth performance, Mary becomes our surrogate, introducing us to the inhabitants of this familiar small town. There’s a kind, elderly librarian (Margaret Mann, with a twinkle in her eye), a heavy-drinking mechanic (Trevor Williams, a far cry from his dandy turn in “Trevor” this March) and a tough beat cop (George Kulp) who brings to mind Officer Lockstock. Not just does this policeman share the “Urinetown” officer’s wry sense of humor but also his habit of breaking the fourth wall and talking straight to the audience.

In one quirky vignette after another, we meet these residents in various configurations around town. Some, like the neurotic handyman John Dodge (Steven Scarpa), stick around long enough to form a character arc while others – an astronaut (J. Kevin Smith), a landscaper (John Watson), a tour guide (Alynne Miller, a bright ball of comedic energy) – come and go after only a short scene. But that’s part of “Middletown’s” magic. It’s not a play interested in plot or even cultivating realistic characters. Eno proudly uses these archetypes as mouthpieces to wax poetic on a variety of lofty subjects.

Some of the dialogue is silly (“We always sort of want something more, I guess because there's a long history of death in both our families”), while some is dense and philosophical ("Life is like trying to fix a moving car”), but each is crafted with a playful poet’s ear. Eno has a deep, nearly Shakespearian love of wordplay and an absurdist streak that approaches Beckett, yet (at least for the first half) “Middletown” is so energetic, fun and original it never comes off as overly obtuse or literary.

As the play goes on, though, it’s hard not to get an occasional whiff of self-indulgence from Mr. Eno’s prose. I can perhaps pardon the heavy-handed ending, but a pre-intermission scene (where the audience is mirrored back to us by fictional theatergoers) is cute in concept but out of place and overly glib.

In the hands of this incredibly strong, 11-person company, the formalistic dialogue rarely feels unnatural. There is not a weak link among the cast, that also includes Megan Chenot, Chaz Carmon and Erich Greene, each bringing a homespun, warm energy to their roles. Scarpa and Gardner have an easy-going, fizzy chemistry in their terrific scenes together while Williams brings real pathos and a wily sense of humor to what could otherwise be a one-note role. Another standout scene, that feels as if a “Parks And Rec” episode was written by Stoppard, features a sheltered tour guide (Miller, terrific) showing off Middletown to an overly eager gay couple (the hilarious Carmon and Greene).

The often-disjointed script is brought together seamlessly by director Peter Chenot. Bringing a clean eye for staging and keeping a swift, breezy pace, Chenot uses the small black box space and a few sporadic set pieces to maximum advantage. An original acapella score (also by Ms. Chenot) helps set a bright but otherworldly tone to the proceedings.

Ah, but we’ve gotten to the end of this review and I fear I haven’t accurately described what “Middletown” is really about. It’s a puzzling question. Yes, “Middletown” is a sweet and quirky cousin to “Almost, Maine” with colorful local characters and an episodic, eclectic storyline, but this play is toying with a lot of complex ideas: finding one’s place in the word, loneliness, romance, anxiety, birth, death, meaning and exactitude of language, nature, science, history and that big question I started my review with. What is that eternal thing Thornton Wilder was talking about?

The closest we get to an answer comes late in Act II when a pregnant Mary meets with her doctor. A lonely and worried prospective parent, she asks the doctor for advice on motherhood. "Love is all around,” he says, “It sounds so simple, I know, but, give him love. He’ll fall sleep in your arms, on your chest. He’ll grasp your finger, because that's what the deepest thing in him and tells him to do. It's so beautiful, it's so mysterious."

Love. It’s so basic and so complex, so elementary and so very hard to pin down. It’s the one thing, really, that lives on past the repeating cycle of birth and death. “All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.”

“Middletown” runs through May 6 at the NHTC Stage @ EBM Vintage in New Haven.