Doesn’t this make you want to see the show??

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 though his welcome will never end. (Fortunately, it’s quite hilarious.) The audience is welcomed both to the production and to Middletown, which is billed as an excessively ordinary town but clearly is not.

The plot of Middletown is straightforward. It follows new resident Mary Swanson (Julia Dooley, BC ’20) as she settles into 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 because there the oddity is commonplace.

The acting is evenly good, but there are a few standouts. Henderson as the librarian is particularly spectacular. The way she barks her lines milks their humor for all they are worth, and there are several delightful moments of physical comedy. She captivated me every time she was onstage. Harrist is also a joy to watch, using John’s awkwardness to make him seem even more sympathetic. Additionally, Harrist’s sense of dramatic timing is particularly good—not a single line felt out of place.

Dooley, ostensibly the main character, is solid. She delivers her lines well, but at times seems overly conscious that she is acting. This contrasts poorly with Harrist’s natural vibe. Even so, chemistry between the two is believable, however, which helps the audience through the more awkward moments in Will Eno’s script.

The lighting, designed by Rowan Kim (GS ’21), is particularly effective in the second half of the play, when she uses a sickly green light to indicate that a character is sick and warmer tones when the baby is onstage. A scene in which the town’s heroic astronaut stands alone, with the only light in the theater coming from his helmet, is also powerfully done. Kim’s one misstep comes in the beginning of the play, when she pulses a blue light directly into the audience’s eyes. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not, but it hurt my pupils.

The set design by Octavio Galaviz (CC ’19) enhances the play’s universality. It’s fairly minimal—two windows at the back of the stage and a bench, among a few other pieces—but the windows are often moving. John and Mary stand behind them during some scenes, which makes it seem as though we’re being offered a glimpse into their intimate home life. It also feels quite isolating.

The production uses the Lerner Black Box theater effectively. The actors made the most of the space’s intimacy, frequently making eye contact with and pointing at the audience. The fourth wall between the performers and the audience is broken constantly, at times for humor and at other times for pathos. (If being singled out by the performers makes you uncomfortable, don’t sit in the first row.) The small size of the space permits some interesting sound effects. For example, breathing noises (presumably made by hidden actors) surround the audience, an experience both disconcerting and exhilarating.

The play’s end left me wondering what the author intended. Perhaps watching it a second time might help me better understand its themes and ideas. But it is so deeply postmodern, dealing with the limitations of language, that I’m not sure even a second viewing would help. The sentences delivered by the actors frequently trail off, as though the lines of dialogue ended with ellipses, and the phrase “You know?” is heavily employed. As a result, the production sometimes lagged for me. However, a friend who attended the show with me, who groks postmodernism, didn’t feel that way at all.

Overall, Middletown does an excellent job with a middling script, and there are many hilarious moments. The production also has a true emotional core. But if you are wary of postmodernism, it might not appeal to you.

Middletown will run March 2 and 3 at 8:00 pm at the Lerner Black Box.