Imagine if Friedrich Nietzsche had written Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to spend an evening in Will Eno’s “Middletown.” It’s not that the play isn’t well-written or doesn’t have a myriad of interesting ideas. The problem is that there are so many interesting ideas and that its characters are always speaking in a self-conscious and existential manner that the play feels, well, groundless, sort of floating in air, like the astronaut from Middletown who is also portrayed floating in the air looking back at his hometown.
It struck me about a half an hour into this frustratingly episodic yet epic (as in overlong) play that this would likely be a far more interesting play to read than to watch. The language is carefully constructed and often has ironic, comic, poignant or even horrific overtones that are rarely in organic sync with what the characters are doing. After a prologue which spends more time delineating possible recipients of the play’s intentions than the play itself ever does delineating its own characters—the surgeon general warning label here seems to be “those who never tire of reading something into everything”—we see a quiet suburban street where a cop harasses “Mechanic,” a wheelchair-bound character, for littering and brutally chokes him with his nightstick for not thinking that their town is wonderful enough. That “Blue Velvet” moment suggests we’re heading into another kind of play altogether, but any other violence in Middletown is the normal course of life and death which, in this town, are gruesomely juxtaposed.
For how much “Middletown” is a riff on “Our Town,” it has removed several of the elements that make that play work so brilliantly, not the least of which is a large span of time for what it lacks in never moving out of the same space. Here, however, we have the same space and the same time—well, a span of about nine months—but it feels stilted and static. And it feels that we are meeting caricatures and animated mouthpieces for aphoristic ideas, not flesh-and-blood characters. This is not the fault of the actors, who appear called upon to act like they are in a “Twilight Zone” episode and do so quite effectively, but this effect is enhanced by a scenic literalism that, of course, Wilder specifically avoids by having no sets or scenery.
The other crucial difference is that unlike “Our Town,” in “Middletown,” life and death have clear-cut sharp edges out of and into an abyss with no connection, unless you happen to be a hospital worker or an audience member who watches a baby crying becoming a death rattle of a dying man in the same scene. Even the baby being born is a downer because the mother is all alone and the baby—indeed it seems all babies, we are reminded—initially need air and milk until their needs get bigger than what those around can supply. Life is a series of increasingly larger disappointments, and then you die. You don’t get to reflect on life’s meaning from some transcendent view, unless you are an astronaut. And yet given how miserable it seems to be, at least when you live in Middletown, that may be your only real salvation, after all. (Dennis Polkow)
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650. $20-$73. Through August 14.