I have a theory that every playwright eventually tries to write a variation on “Our Town”—attempting in his or her own way to find deep truths by looking at the everyday while, when convenient, tearing down the theatrical fourth wall.
Will Eno is no exception. In his play "Middletown" (staged by NoExit Performance through April 19 at Indy Indie Artist Colony), there’s Mary, a newcomer to town, a new wife and soon to be new mother. There’s John, the deeply sad handyman who is between two lousy jobs—only he doesn't know what the second one is yet . There’s a cop. There’s a librarian. There are doctors and a janitor and even an astronaut. All are on similar melancholy journeys filled with miracles and letdowns.
At its best, “Middletown” holds its gaze on these ordinary folks who can’t help but reveal painful truths about a world where people live, die and wrestle with their place in an indifferent but perhaps beautiful universe. Told primarily through funny/simple/circling-back-on-itself dialogue, “Middletown” stares with unblinking empathy while refraining from denying life’s pain.
NoExit Performance labeled its 2013/2014 season “The Weird Ones.” But while that may apply to its bizzaro “Nutcracker” (see review here), “Middletown” would better fit a season called “The Ordinary Ones.” Eno’s small town is populated with the vaguely disconnected, the lonely, the disappointed, and the unenthusiastic—people who were told as children that they were exceptional only to realize in adulthood that they aren’t … except in the ways that everyone else is exceptional.
Maybe, Eno suggests, that’s the key. Or maybe it isn’t. He’s that kind of writer.
The play could do without Eno’s sophomoric pre-intermission scene in which alleged audience members (actors we’ve seen in other roles) voice their thoughts on the show. Having some of the actors play as many as six characters may be an economic necessity but it gets in the way esthetically. I'm not sure what to make of the cop's violent act early on. And NoExit’s minimal budget translates into uncomfortable folding chairs and a crammed stage with awkward transitions.
But during moments when it hits its stride, “Middletown” offers the strongest combination of writing, directing (by Michael Burke) and acting I’ve seen in a long time in Indy. There are hints of their previous performances in Georgeanna Smith’s Mary and Matthew Roland’s John, but nothing near the truthful moment-to-moment depth given to their scenes here together. This isn’t showboat acting. This isn’t egocentric acting. This is the honest, skillful, vulnerable and deeply moving mining of humanity that comes from actors given both direction and freedom. And it’s theatrically thrilling.