Actors’ Shakespeare Project Delivers Brilliant ‘Middletown’ (Five Stars)

“Middletown” presented by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Written by Will Eno; Directed by Doug Lockwood; At the Cambridge YMCA Theater in Central Square, 820 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge through March 10th.

Life is Hard. People are strange. But life is a lot harder and people are a lot stranger when they can’t make that critical human connection with other people. The opening half of Will Eno’s brilliant “Middletown” is kind of like “Our Town” – only with characters who communicate every thought in their head about even the most mundane of activities. Set in the title town that could be Anywhere, USA (and one that seems utterly cut off from the big picture of the rest of the world) Middletown appears to be as boring as Mayberry, USA – only with Barney Fife and Otis the Drunk replaced with a much darker cop and a 3-D alcoholic. The town is a place where things almost happen but never seem to get around to it, much like many of the characters who live there (or anywhere for that matter). But to say that any of this is boring would be a mistake, because what the characters are speaking is more of what the great part of the human race thinks and feels – that there’s got to be something more to this Life Thing – and there can be once we start connecting with one another.

The play revolves around the characters inhabiting Middletown, principally Mary Swanson (the incredible Marianna Bassham), who has just moved to the town with her husband to start a family. Like “Our Town”, the characters often speak directly to the audience to establish a back story about themselves or life in the town. The play opens with an interaction/altercation between a guy (Steven Barkhimer) on a bench drinking booze from a brown paper bag and what appears to be the town’s only cop (Gabriel Kuttner), and sets the tone that if this town is anything like Mayberry, its David Lynch’s version. We meet Mary when she goes to the library to get books on child rearing and we are introduced to some of the town’s other characters – who are a little offbeat to say the least.

It is there where she meets John, a handyman who never seems to get it together but becomes the closest thing to a friend for Mary, as her husband is always out of town on business (we never see him). The first half of the play spends time setting up the characters of Mary, the cop, John, and the drunken mechanic and shows us glimpses of the madness and desperate loneliness that runs through many of us, but leaves the audience feeling a little disconnected from it all. That changes dramatically in the second half, when a hospital becomes the setting, and that’s where we see the characters begin to connect and become more fully human. People are born, people die, and people grieve but life goes on. It’s what we do in between that counts.

This is not an easy play to digest but that’s in no way a knock. Great theater challenges and provokes and this production accomplishes that in spades. At the end of the first act, part of me was wondering, “What the F is going on here?”, and I believe that was the writer’s intention. If you see this show and feel like you don’t quite grasp it in the opening act, don’t worry, it will all be worth it as the second half unfolds. A neat explanation isn’t necessary. It is absolutely brilliantly written and it may be the most well-acted of any shows I’ve seen recently. Eno’s dialogue is loaded with hilarious and insightful quips (one character says “I was a perfect baby” but we understand that it has all gone downhill from there) and the actors really make the material live.

Although the acting is universally terrific, a couple of players in particular really stood out for me, possibly enhanced by the roles. As Mary, Bassham is wonderful at conveying sweetness laced with loneliness and fear; Kuttner’s cop is great as well, but it’s his short turn as Mary’s pediatrician (who comically explains precisely how life works) that nearly stole the second act; and Margaret Lamb moves seamlessly and convincingly through her roles as a young girl, a kind doctor and a somewhat bizarre tourist. Barkheim is also marvelous as the tortured drunk.

And don’t let the theater location keep you from going. The theater at the Cambridge YMCA is a unique and funky space and director Doug Lockwood makes great use of all of its levels from the balcony to the sub-stage. This is not a production for people who like a straight narrative and neat conclusions, but if you want to stretch your mind a little, it’s a “Don’t Miss”.

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