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The only proper response to a Will Eno play is suicide. The existentialist, Brooklyn-based playwright enjoys holding a mirror up to his audiences so they can watch themselves slowly die. He is also very funny. The 46-year old, whose Thomas Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama back in 2005 has penned an equally engaging piece that explores life and death, humans and animals, space and time, and everything in between. Middletown, a darkly humorous play first produced at the Vineyard Theater in New York last November, is taking up residence at Steppenwolf as the last play of their season devoted to exploring public/private lives.
Two windows in two houses stand on opposite sides of a circular median where the residents revolve like planets around the sun, living humdrum lives that are simultaneously boring and profound. Mary Swanson, the newest Middletownian, lives in the left with her distant and never-seen husband; John Dodge, a graying lifer in the town, lives on the right. They meet in the middle, and their odd, hesitant friendship forms the central relationship of the piece. Facilitated by the Librarian (played regally by Artistic Director Martha Levy), their bond anchors of the show, as a Cop, Mechanic, and Astronaut wax philosophical about existence. The result is a powerful thought piece, poetically written and masterfully acted by some of the most talented performers in Chicago.
The characters, despite divergent professions and stages of life, all speak as Eno. For that reason, Eno is at his strongest when his characters speak directly to us. From the first monologue which brilliantly invites and alienates each audience member to the speeches scattered throughout where characters welcome and warn us about their home, Eno’s poetic and tragic chunks of language are powerful. Michael Patrick Thorton, who plays the the mechanic philosopher in a wheelchair, provides the bulk of this deadpan that kills – with both laughter and true, biting pain. Tracy Letts, fresh off his groundbreaking and Broadway-bound performance as George inWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, storms the stage as the weathered George. While Brenda Barie, the female lead, seemed a bit nervous at her Equity debut, no one can fault her while playing opposite the Tony Award winning playwright and performance.
Middletown isn’t just a staged suicide note, but a twisted love letter. While painfully aware of his characters’ and his own death, Eno celebrates these individual’s lives and the loose connections we make on our sojourn to the grave. His language walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy, suggesting everything worthwhile is in between. Don’t give your attention to the individual, but to the untouchable and empty middle that floats between us all.