Intrigued by the poster (designed by Lena Kogan, CC ’19), Senior Staffer Abby Rubel ventured forth into Middletown, a CUP production directed by Bernadette Bridges and produced by Samantha Grubner and Sean Davey. What she found there was entertaining but…odd.
The floor is lit to look like a starry sky or outer space, an image reinforced by the astronaut on the program cover. The house lights come down, and a man (Noah Harouche, CC ’21) takes the stage to welcome the audience. Effusively. It seems as if his welcome will never end. (Luckily, it’s quite hilarious.) The audience is welcomed both to the production and to Middletown, which is billed as an excessively ordinary town.
The plot of Middletown is straightforward. It primarily follows new resident Mary Swanson (Julia Dooley, BC ’20) as she gets settled in Middletown with her husband (who is never seen), becomes pregnant, and gives birth. She forms a friendship with John Dodge, played by Jack Harrist (CC ’21). There’s also an unhelpful librarian (Genevieve Henderson, CC ’19), an aggressive cop (Adam Obedian, CC ’19), a drunk mechanic (Jesse Cao, CC ’20), and a tour guide (Izzy Schettino, BC ’21), among others. Most of the cast members take on multiple roles, allowing the audience to make connections between the characters and recognize similarities and differences. The play is character-driven; the plot is minimal. The cast members all seem comfortable with one another. No one seems out of place in Middletown (except in the ways everyone seems out of place).
The acting was evenly good, but there were a few standouts. Henderson as the librarian was particularly spectacular. The way she barks her lines milk their humor for all it’s worth, and there are several delightful moments of physical comedy. I was captivated every time she was onstage. Harris is also a joy to watch, using John’s awkwardness to make him even more sympathetic. His sense of dramatic timing is particularly good—not a single line felt out of place.
Dooley, ostensibly the main character, was definitely solid. Her lines were delivered well, but at times she seemed very conscious that she was acting, which contrasted poorly with Harrist’s natural vibe. The chemistry between the two was definitely believable, however, which helped the more awkward moments in the Eno’s script coalesce.
The lighting, designed by Rowan Kim (GS ’21), was particularly effective in the second half of the play, when the two halves of the theater are lit separately. The stage is lit with a sickly green when a character is sick, and with warmer tones when the baby is onstage. A scene in which the town’s heroic astronaut stands in a completely dark theater, with the only light coming from his helmet, was also powerfully done. The one sour note came in the beginning of the play, when a blue light pulsed directly in the audience’s eyes. It’s unclear if this was intentional or not, but it definitely hurt my pupils.
The set design, by Octavio Galaviz (CC ’19), enhanced the play’s univerality. It was fairly minimal—two windows at the back of the stage and a bench, among a few other moveable pieces. The windows were often moving. John and Mary stand behind them during some scenes, facing apart. It seems as if we’re getting a glimpse into their intimate home life, but it also felt quite isolating.
The production used the Lerner Black Box quite effectively. The actors made the most of the space’s intimacy, frequently making eye contact with and pointing at the audience. The fourth wall may as well not exist, which is at times utilized for humor and at others for pathos—both successfully. (If being singled out by the people onstage makes you uncomfortable, don’t sit in the first row.) The small size of the space also allowed sounds to travel effectively. At times, breathing noises (presumably made by actors hidden behind the seats) surround the audience, an experience both disconcerting and exhilarating.
The play itself is quite confusing. I would have to see it again to truly get a handle on the themes and ideas it interacts with. It is deeply postmodern, dealing with the limitations of language and the difference between the signifier and the signified. The actors frequently trail off at the end of their lines, as if they all ended with ellipses, and the words “you know?” are heavily employed. I’m not a big fan of postmodernism, so at times it felt as if the production lagged; I kept wanting it to say something already. The friend I saw the show with, however, is into postmodernism and didn’t feel that way at all.
Middletown is an excellent production with many hilarious moments, but also a true emotional core. But if you hate postmodernism, it might not appeal to you.
Middletown will run March 2 and 3 at 8:00 pm at the Lerner Black Box.