Stuck In The Middle

Christopher Ash PhotoTwo windowpanes, clouded by years of dust and rain buildup. A spare, glistening park bench empty in the center of a manicured patch of grass, backed with a homely looking fence that could appear anywhere from Elm Street to Grand Avenue.

Were it not for its setting among the din and drone of a packed blackbox theater, perhaps it would.

That is precisely what Will Eno’s Middletown (2010), the fourth and last full-length play in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s jam-packed season, is about.

The play, which began July 26 and runs through this Sunday, marks a semi-departure from the physical and psychological violence of the Summer Cabaret’s first three shows this season, trading dark, sometimes chilling humor, occasional brutality and incessant questioning of human motives for a meditation on the voluptuous trauma of living. 

Like We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Middletown channels histories past, present, and collective, embarking on an exhilarating – if not sometimes damning – investigation of the tenuous fabric that connects us. Where it comes very much into its own, however, is in a profound examination of personhood and language, and the intimate and precise relationship between the two.

At first glance, everything about Middletown – the town and the play – is, if not without rough edges, basic and charming enough. Like the residents of any town (or at the very least, our town), the characters are a motley crew: a newly married transplant and her continually absent husband, her graying neighbor John, a divorcé who on his best days is a regular MacGyver and his worst, crippled by depression; a town mechanic-cum-bum with a deep and complex sense of failure; a chatty, even-keeled town librarian; a policeman whose outbursts of rage are plausible in a week that has seen Eric Garner’s burial and a federal investigation into police brutality. There are even a couple tourists wandering the hamlet’s tree-lined streets, snapping pictures as they seek out “a strange angle on things … some perspective.” 

But this ostensible banality – and its immediate, visceral relatablility – are a sticking point of the show. Employing the largest cast the summer cab has seen yet (note: many actors take on multiple roles), this is not another work decrying the humdrum of the everyday; it champions the majesty of the mundane with a sustained and self-conscious look at what we once were, what we have become, and what we will be.

Take the script’s emphasis on language. As they tumble from characters in long, rambling streams and halting, garbled spurts, words become much more than words, making and unmaking realities, weaving and unweaving interactions. Paired with the endless question of what makes a person, and the lurking answer that whatever it is, it must begin and end, they assume a central role in the script: The first thing the audience hears is a long, all-inclusive greeting, and the last, a clipped maternal goodbye. In between, a string of Eno’s hand-picked terms buttress every interaction, every character’s aside to the audience, every possible missed meaning or thwarted connection. In an internal intermission at the end of the first act – giving the momentary sense that Middletown too is a play within a play – they become instrumental, revealing the elaborate theater of social interaction itself. 

Which is to say, Middletown is a new kind of origin story. This is a William Carlos Williams’ poem turned on its head: living, and living difficultly, is not remarkably beautiful, but beautifully absurd. If the title is not a giveaway, the play’s characters – down to the tourists – are exploring what it means, exactly, to live in the middle, to personify the in-between. Life, they realize, is that brutal, very pregnant pause between birth and death. No small wonder, then, that each of them grapple with exactly how to make it meaningful before their slight, strikingly similar lights blink out one by one. As an OB GYN (Ato Blankson-Wood) explains at one point, the experience of birth must be like a car accident: We travel from infinite warmth to infinite pain. How can it not lead to years of asking what it’s all about? 

While Eno’s script is strong and raises poignant questions, it waxes and wanes during the second half of the show and veers alarmingly close to In America during a final sequence. Not to worry, though: The backbone of the play is Luke Harlan’s artistic direction, committed to a sensory experience of the utterly liminal. Scene changes – including one that takes place in space – are characterized by detailed light animation, allowing for both a greater sense of “town” and some surreal, dream-like moments. Acts begin and end with tracks from Sufjan Steven’s Michigan and Illinois, themselves initially intended to elevate Midwestern towns, hanging in the industrial balance, into something perceptibly human. A final radio sequence that he and Jessica Holt (We Are Proud to Present) have put together leaves the audience literally spinning through space and time as one light is extinguished and another brightly turns on.

When the play is over and the lights go up, the audience too is left in this interstitial space. The now, let’s say. Or rather, the middle. It is ridiculous, and messy, and baffling.

But by golly, is it exquisite.

Middletown runs through Sunday, August 10, and will be followed by the Yale Summer Cab’s Summer Shorts: A Festival of New Voices. For ticket information, location, directions and more, visit their website.

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