Review: Middletown: Is This You?

Crisman Cooley

The “Southern California premiere” of Middletown, by Will Eno, began and completed its run this month at the Chance Theatre in Anaheim. Because Eno possesses some characteristics of the endangered species “the living playwright,” I’d like to spend a few words considering what he is saying and what it might mean to us. 

Every play has a thesis, something the playwright is trying to prove. (That’s my thesis.) Starting here, we can, like a tedious scientist counting molecules in a mole, decide to what degree the playwright has succeeded. And we can decide to what extent the success or failure is brought about by the production versus the script. Although this doesn’t sound like much fun, it may be the best way to tease out the value of a work like Middletown.

If Charles Isherwood is right that playwright Will Eno is the “Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation” (he is wrong, of course, for no one is ever anyone else...but leave that aside for a moment), it might give a context for Eno’s work if we spend a minute remembering what “Waiting for Godot” specifically and absurd theatre generally was about. Martin Esslin (who coined the term) said:

Theatre of the a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

The “Middletown” project I believe is somewhat less grand than “accepting the human condition”...probably more on the scale of “accepting your life as it is.” The thesis, I think, is: this is you, this is your life. Eno would like to hold up the mirror and allow us to reflect on what we see. 

Like “Our Town” (which he used as a starting point for his play), Eno starts by removing the “fourth wall” and speaking to the audience directly. In pseudo-formal speak reminiscent of “Thom Pain,” the narrator goes on for two pages addressing YOU:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues, Members of the Board, Middletonians, Local Dignitaries, everyone really…animal lovers everywhere, real people people, with doubts, without certainty, with nothing else worth mentioning, the majority of us, silent, stifled, delinquent...running out of time, hope, air, nerves, heart, chances…I know I’m forgetting somebody...hopeful people, everybody, every last lone dying and inconsolably lonely person, fellow human beings, breathing people, breathers, breathers...welcome. The fire exit’s over there.

It’s a funny speech. could be.

It didn’t draw any laughs in the Chance production. Why? Well, it’s difficult to say. Personally, I was feeling embarrassed and nervous. And...surrounded. Instead of using a single narrator, Director Trevor Biship delegates the work of this long speech by having the entire cast on stage and spread up in an arc into the audience, with each one saying a bit of the speech. There were ten or fifteen actors encircling the more than 180 degrees of the room and only about thirty of us in the audience. I felt outnumbered. (That’s a thought, not a feeling, if you’re keeping score…)

Right from the beginning, then, Eno is talking to ME...or trying to, anyway. But having removed the fourth wall in this tiny theatre with a cast almost as big as the audience, I was actually starting to look longingly at the fire exit. The tension between actor and audience (the primary interest of a play like Thom Pain) is never repeated. He’s succeeded in telling me who he’s addressing and inspiring my wish to escape, but nothing else. Why?

The “drama” begins.

The town Cop (played by Robert Foran) and the town drunk (“Mechanic,” played by Ned Liebl) have an altercation that ends with the cop almost choking him. Having seen horrific scenes of police violence on YouTube lately, you would consider this rather mild. (But then, both cop & drunk are white people…) This is followed by a scene at the library where we see the librarian (Karen Webster), a lonely wife Mary (played admirably by Lola Kelly) and John, a lonely jack-of-all-trades (James McHale), who meet and begin what is to become an almost-love-affair. John is “kind of between things.” And Middletown is built on top of other Middletowns on top of a town called Middentown because it was in between other towns. A midden heap. So the middens at the “middle” of Middletown is outlined in this tetrahedron of tension between cop and drunk at one side and John and Mary at a perpendicular. The former never get to real violence, and the latter never get to sex. Fine—everyone stays in the middle.

I’ve always marveled at “Waiting for Godot”, a play in which nothing happens. How could it possibly work as drama? Yet it does. I think it is because you really are waiting, wondering who or what will this Godot be? And you’re happy in the meantime to be entertained by the two clowns, Didi and Gogo. And you really can laugh that you too were fooled into waiting for Godot.

I can see that my life is in Middletown most of the time. This review is in Middletown. From what I’ve written, I can tell it’s going to be a mediocre review. When I fall in love, I mostly do not have an affair. When I get interested in something at the library, as John is interested in Gravity, it usually leads nowhere. Most of what I’ve learned is useless. Most of what I do is absolutely valueless to me or anyone else the next day. Everyone else likes to talk about the gold and the wheat. Eno’s talking about the dross and the chaff. The not-quite-here-not-quite-there part of life. Most of life, mostly in the middle. to make this into drama? It’s a real problem.

If we follow Arthur Miller’s requirement that every element in a play must revolve around one explosive dramatic conflict coming together in a single moment onstage, we can see that “Middletown” cannot succeed. Or at least how it can succeed is not evident yet.

But we started out saying that Middletown had only to live up to its own standard by proving its thesis: this is you, this is your life. And I can certainly find a lot of my life in theneither-here-nor-there. The odd thing I noticed in the first Act of Middletown was that somehow for all this being about ME (or YOU, as it were), I never really felt connected to anyone or anything that happened onstage.

There are some good lines, like the Mechanic: “People don’t think about how lucky they are. I do. And I’ve realized, I’m not that lucky.” Later, the cop says: “...I guess we all have a story. Once upon a time, Once upon a time, and so on, the end.” These lines seem funny after the fact. But when I heard the character say it onstage, I didn’t laugh.

Then there is a scene of an astronaut, Greg (Ahmed T. Brooks), looking down at Earth from space. He says how beautiful it is, interspersed with data jargon to “Houston”. And I didn’t get that either. Certainly it did nothing either to prove Eno’s thesis or create drama. ...what else are we trying to do here? Observe life from outer space? Yes, there’s a tenuous lashing to John’s interest in gravity…but what else?

Then there’s an “intermission.” In quotes because it’s some actors pretending to be fake audience members talking about the play. Are they supposed to be “me”? They’re not. They aren’t “you” either. It seems more like a joke that isn’t working. I felt disappointed that I had to stay in the theatre and watch a fake intermission instead of going outside and having a real one. I wondered if there would be a real one.

Of course, I didn’t “have to stay.” But I’m still sitting here in the theatre, trying to be a respectful and diligent audience member. While the play is kind of wobbling and limping from one scene to the next. And now playing a kind of old dada joke that isn’t funny. I’m feeling restless and bored, and cannot wait for the play to be over. (Having grown up in American Dadaism, I know that “Boredom is a very high state.”) I must wait. When the real intermission comes, it’s a relief to go outside for real air.

When I return from intermission, I notice that almost everyone in the theatre changes seats. I’ve never seen that before. Was it caused by the play? For me, it was. My seat was stuck way up in back (in the tiny theatre, “way up” isn’t very far) next to the theatre techs, as far from the exit as you can get, so I change to an aisle seat down low where I can bolt as soon as the performance is over.

One of the only notes I made on the first Act was: “No. This isn’t me. Because I’m not a caricature.” What we have here is a failure to...occupy. The acting is fine, it’s not that. And Eno is very good in Thom Pain when he’s essentially writing (I’m guessing) semi-autobiographical stream of consciousness. But in Middletown, I do not see a “negative capability” that Keats ascribed to Shakespeare: an ability to empty himself into his characters. To fully and completely inhabit them. To make them real people. I see Eno here more as Greg, looking down on people as if they are “those people down there who live in the North American Midwest somewhere.” 

At this point, I realize I’m stuck in a performance that cannot possibly redeem itself. Yet, as it turned out, the second Act almost made this into a dramatic play.

The action takes up some months later. Mary is fully pregnant. The drunk has started drinking again. (Or, from our perspective, never quit.) The cop’s still copping around. John has tried to commit suicide and has a strange infection. John and Mary trade their side-by-side windows for side-by-side hospital rooms: she’s giving birth, he’s dying. I start to care about these two at the beginning of the second act. The doctor gives Mary a tiny hat for babies and says, “Did you ever see a tinier hat?”

I’ll cut to the chase: there is no chase.

John dies. (Thereby escaping Middletown without using the fire exit.) Mary gives birth. Life goes on. Is it my life? Thank God, no.

Sorry, I wish I had more to say. But this seems to me a perfectly good Sunday afternoon at the theatre, misspent. I’m not convinced that Eno has the experience to tell me about any human experience but his own. If he does not love his characters as himself, they must be caricatures. For any writer, there is an enormous barrier in the way of negative capability: the writer himself. Eno can make amazing verbal jokes and loopdeeloos, which I appreciate. But he cannot tell me about me. Or you about you. At least, it isn’t happening in Middletown.