Middletown Is Magic
Will Eno’s Unlikely Synthesis of Deadpan Wit and Emotional Pyrotechnics
Will Eno is the rare kind of playwright who makes artists and audiences of all ages swoon—his plays have been produced by the august Seattle Repertory Theater (Thom Pain (based on nothing)) and the young, experimental Satori Group (Tragedy: a tragedy). It's easy to see the attraction. Eno's language is loopy and sharp in a David Foster Wallace kind of way, his cheery obsession with death and oblivion has a Woody-Allen-in-his-prime charm, and his meta-theatrical devices—actors disguised as audience members who sometimes appear onstage or leave the theater in a huff—are shiny dramatic toys for actors and directors to play with.
Those productions of Thom Pain (a self-reflexive monologue about a man trying to come to grips with the fact of his own existence) and Tragedy (about workaday people, especially newscasters, trying to come to grips with the fact that they might be living through the apocalypse) were, at their core, exercises in trying to dance with existential dread—to caper around a corpse. But sometimes their capering was a little too cute. One got the sense that Eno was a clever tease, flirting with our ennui, but couldn't really deliver the goods. Thom Pain and Tragedy were intellectual seductions but not worth more than one-night stands—Middletown, on the other hand, is a play worth having a relationship with.
A riff on Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Middletown oscillates between small-town clichés, skewering of clichés, and surprise punches of sincerity. The result, an unlikely synthesis of deadpan wit and emotional pyrotechnics, can be magic.
Ray Tagavilla plays the town's wise drunk (cliché) who, in the first moments of the play, meets a stern but secretly sentimental cop (cliché) played by Matthew Floyd Miller. The cop welcomes us to Middletown and earnestly describes the place: "Population: stable; elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go." He pauses for the kicker: "Crying, by the way, in both directions."
"Ain't that the truth," mutters the drunk (who's also a mechanic). Within seconds, the cop is viciously choking him for no apparent reason—their social roles simply make them natural enemies. The choking stops. "I apologize," the cop tells us. "I was just trying to imitate nature." The next scene begins cheerfully, in the town library, where a perky young housewife who's just moved to town (Alexandra Tavares) wants to get a library card. "Good for you, dear," chirps the cheerful older librarian (Marianne Owen). "I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die anyway!'"
Expertly directed by John Langs, the 10-person cast works together so well, it's as if they're holding hands and merrily skipping through the text. They're convincingly ordinary people in ordinary situations who happen to have a cosmically minded comedian writing their lines: The housewife cultivates a friendship with a charmingly glum divorcé (Eric Riedmann). The drunk mechanic hangs out at the library and looks for leftover pills in hospital dumpsters. An astronaut, Middletown's only famous resident, looks down on earth from his space capsule. Two bumptious tourists (Sarah Harlett and R. Hamilton Wright) who consider themselves "seekers" encourage a flustered small-town tour guide (Renata Friedman) to "skip the speeches" and tell them some "serious truth"—so she begins rhapsodizing about the air, the dirt, and "a beautiful sunset on earth, before human beings had ever evolved. No one there to say 'Oooh' or 'Ahhh.'"
By the end, most of the characters meet at the hospital, coming and going, and there's some crying in both directions. Tagavilla has a powerful moment in this section—the drunk mechanic has to perform community service by dressing up as a stereotypical "Chakmawg Indian" to entertain the kids. ("Don't use 'to be' verbs," one nurse instructs him condescendingly. "Keep it simple... 'It rain and children grow strong, like tree. Sun cross sky many time...' Sound good?") But when he's alone, wearing the headdress and ankle bells, he begins a slow, private chant that builds in intensity until Tagavilla is howling like there's a cyclone in his throat, and all the pain, confusion, and fear of Middletown—which is to say, your town—is pouring through him in one wild wail.
Those are the kinds of moments that set Middletown above other Eno plays Seattle has seen. It's as if the script's ambient wit slowly ionizes the atmosphere until Eno finds just the right moment to hurl a lightning bolt our way.