Aside from the inane hilarity that always seems to follow the instruction to “unwrap your candy now,” I’ve never been a huge fan of the pre-show speech suggestion to “sit back and relax.” It’s a phrase that seems to suggest we disengage from the theatrical medium and just let a play happen to us, rather than engage in what is inherently a communal and active experience. It’s boring and lazy at best and a tragic waste of the medium’s resources at worst.
“Middletown,” the new play by Dan Clancy now at the Apollo Theater (separate from the Will Eno play of the same name), is practically the embodiment of the phrase “sit back and relax.” It’s an absolute wash of a thing, sprinkled with enough vague sentiment and heart in its latter half to offer some emotional respite but practically airless in its core foundation. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a Hallmark card: heartfelt and appreciative but without the specificity required to really leave a lasting impression.
The production, directed by Seth Greenleaf, purports to be staged with no set or props in order to “let the words speak for themselves.” In truth, there’s nothing in these words that could be elevated by further design elements. This is the decades-spanning story of two couples: Peg and Tom (Sandy Duncan and Adrian Zmed) and Dotty and Don (Kate Buddeke and Donny Most), who navigate their lives from their thirties to their eighties, with every trademark of Norman Rockwell life you can think of thrown into their narratives. Cliché-ridden as it may be, these four actors, all reading from their scripts at separate music stands, are adept at pulling humor from notably clunky one-liners as well as imbuing emotion and poignancy from moments of pure treacle.
The play moves from scene to scene, checking off every conflict that could befall a married couple (The husband is cheating! The teenage son is gay! The husband has colon cancer!) within a timeline devoid of specific cultural or historical markers (the husbands both note they fought in Vietnam but no other sense of time is present). Which makes it all the more jarring when, truly from out of nowhere, the characters reckon with a major moment in American history (no spoilers, I suppose, but one clue: the event happened on September 11, 2001). It’s a truly baffling moment, placing one of the most politically tinged American cultural signifiers within a play that had twenty minutes earlier made the kind of lame sex joke you’d find in a Dave Barry column. “Tonally dissonant” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that my emotions started to get the best of me near the play’s conclusion. As the characters grew older and began to reckon with their mortality, my mind wandered to those closest to me in my own life, wondering what will happen to us a few decades from now. We’re all on our own journeys of pure sadness and pure joy, filled with friendship and love, and the tragic beauty of life is that we never know when it will end. But “Middletown” contains no such beauty: we know it will end March 22. (Ben Kaye)
GFour Productions at The Apollo Theater, 2540 North Lincoln, (773) 935-6100, apollochicago.com, $65. Through March 22.