Meandering through ‘Middletown’ and life

Will Eno's oddly charming play at Third Rail is a funny, somber shadow dance between the profound and mundane

Early in the Will Eno play Middletown, which opened last weekend in an oddly charming, deeply moving production from Third Rail Rep, a cop walking his beat encounters a scruffy loiterer. Their dialogue isn’t entirely friendly, but still it’s a shock when the cop suddenly gets behind the man and puts him in a chokehold. “Be filled with humility! With wonder and awe!,” the cop commands, as the loiterer can only gasp and gurgle, struggling against the baton at his throat. “It’s not easy, is it?”

A moment later, the cop, played by Bruce Burkhartsmeier with a surly shell and an affable center, turns to the crowd, a touch sheepishly. “I don’t know what I was trying to —,” he nods back toward the preceding scene. “I was just trying to imitate nature.”

Maureen Porter and Michael O'Connell. Photo: Owen Carey

Maureen Porter and Michael O’Connell. Photo: Owen Carey

Not much else of nature’s propensity for sudden violence crops up in Middletown, an otherwise genial place where everyone’s favorite pastime seems to be offhand musing on the mysteries of life. But by the end of a visit here, humility, wonder and awe feel very much like the appropriate responses — not commanded or coerced, but elicited with an oddball warmth and insights into human nature that are, as a dramaturge’s note in the playbill puts it, “excruciatingly truthful.”

Around this point in a review, you might normally expect a brief description of the play’s narrative contours, as a way of telling you what it’s “about.” But Middletown reminds me of an interview I conducted years ago with the performance artist Laurie Anderson, who was on tour with one of her allusive, discursive multimedia productions. Not only did the show have no plot, she said, but she disliked the very idea of a plot. A plot was a story with the boring parts removed, she said. But what convention considers the boring parts are what she finds most interesting.

Similarly, Eno — who won the 2010 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play with Middletown and was a Pulitzer nominee in 2005 for the existentially comic monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) — tries to touch the ineffable through quotidian textures.

“… I wanted to write a play that put some thoughts and feelings in the air about the miracle (of birth) and the mystery (of death) and that alluded to deep and unknown forces,” he told the Boston Globe in a 2013 interview. “But then really just have people going to the store and fixing the sink and going through the normal things of looking for love and getting up in the morning. Because that’s how we live.”

The energies that drive the play are linguistic and conceptual, rather than narrative or conventionally dramatic. Yet amid the low-wattage activity, Eno’s characters speak with such disarming, if often bemused, honesty that deep emotion shines through. Instead of the glare of grand passions in extreme moments, however, it is the soft light of sustained yearnings.

“I wanted a lot out of life,” one character admits sadly. “First air and milk, and then it just kept going.”

Eno has acknowledged an inspirational debt to Samuel Beckett and has riffed on Ibsen (reworking Peer Gynt into Gnit, workshopped at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival in 2010). Middletown nods obliquely to Our Town, the Thornton Wilder classic. It “is NOT a modern-day Our Town,” cautions a program note by Third Rail artistic director Scott Yarbrough, in part because it concerns itself less with life’s big transitional moments than with the nagging questions that cling to us in between; that is, not beginnings and endings, but the middle.

Such thematic territory is reflected in the wonderfully wry dialogue, as when an amiably aimless fellow named John Dodge says, “I’m between two crappy jobs, I’m sure. I just don’t know what the second one is yet.”

When JAW featured a staged reading of Middletown in 2009, John Dodge was played by an actor with an uncanny feel for Eno’s idiosyncratic language and the character’s tricky blend of whimsy and melancholy. Shortly thereafter, that actor, Oregon native Ty Burrell, became a star on the TV comedy Modern Family.

Here, Third Rail stalwart Michael O’Connell gives the hangdog handyman a more puppyish sweetness as well as a more palpable depression. The actor’s natural suavity seems to compete sometimes with the character’s aw-shucks dorkiness, but the effect is endearing nonetheless. Meanwhile, Maureen Porter, one of two holdovers from that 2009 cast (Darius Pierce, precise and engaging in a variety of small roles, is the other), brings her usual sympathetic glow to Mary Swanson, a new arrival in Middletown looking forward to starting a family with her often-traveling husband. Amid the mosaic of little scenes that make up the play, those showing the tentative friendship between John and Mary provide a central focus.

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, upholding the law. Photo: Owen Carey

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, imitating nature. Photo: Owen Carey

The show most plays to Third Rail’s strengths, though, as an ensemble vehicle. In addition to Burkhartsmeier and Pierce, there’s fine work here from, among others, Diane Kondrat (bursting with civic pride as the local librarian), Ben Newman (as the aforementioned loiterer, a troubled underemployed mechanic), and Damon Kupper, in a few roles, including a doctor whose prenatal advice to Mary is as straightforwardly sentimental as the play gets: “Forgiveness and love, and you’re all set.”

The great pleasure here, however, is Eno’s rich, witty language. The play may be — to borrow a phrase from the hilariously lengthy introductory speech (brightly delivered by Pierce) — “bloated with the gorged-on words,” full of reflective aphorisms and innocent confessions, curlicues of logic and antic tonal shifts, runaway run-on thoughts and strategic silences. Oh — and deliciously bad puns. But by accretion all that talk gains weight and meaning, slowly seeming less like a series of one-liners and more like a curious meditation on the shadow dance between the profound and the mundane.

 The droll, vaguely fatalistic humor rolls on, but the mood grows subtly more somber and the pace slows in the second act, until the play reaches a quiet yet symbolically resonant end. That is also a beginning. Which puts us, with wonder and awe, right back in the middle.

NOTE: This review is possible in part thanks to our partners at Artslandia!


Third Rail Rep’s Middletown continues through Oct. 19 in the Winningstad Theatre. Schedule and ticket information is here.


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