The New York Times dubbed Will Eno a “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” But Beckett could whip tedium into an existential poem. So, to a lesser degree, can Eno — as he proved in his 2005 Pulitzer finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), a startling monologue in which an angry nowhere man shares his bleakly lyrical observations on the downward curve of life.
But Thom Pain is an hour long. Middletown, which deploys more characters to cover the same ground, is a two-act meditation on birth, death, and the lonely in-between that owes debts to Thornton Wilder and David Lynch. Set in the nondescript burg of the title and written in utterances both random and poetic, the play begins with a Public Speaker welcoming us in an all-inclusive aria that demonstrates Eno’s deft way with words. And for a while the play proper delights as an absurdist flight of fancy taking off from Our Town, the denizens of Middletown placing their anxieties and wonderments like dollops of ice cream atop the cake of ordinary life. Mary Swanson, newly arrived in town and applying for a library card, is greeted by the librarian: “Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die anyway.’ ”
But despite all the birth, death, and strange encounters going on, Middletown starts to flatline. Mary (the only character who is part of a couple but whose husband is never home) and a depressive handyman named John get more stage time than the quirkier characters, among them an apologetically sadistic cop and a hard-drinking mechanic who declares himself a “perfect baby” gone wrong. And in the second act, the metaphors get as literal as the furnishings, Waiting for Meaning morphing into General Hospital.
Moreover, Doug Lockwood’s production for Actors’ Shakespeare Project, though well acted by a cast hovering between the sincere and the surreal, is too anchored in dingy realism to capture the heightened, even magical elements of the work. A hometown astronaut here inhabits space by perching atop a ladder to tell Houston that Middletown doesn’t look so lonely when viewed from what Wilder calls “the Mind of God.” I could have used a few stars — or the utterly stripped-down approach that spells universality in Our Town.
MIDDLETOWN :: Theater at the Cambridge YMCA, 820 Mass Ave, Cambridge :: Through March 10 :: $33-$50 :: 866.811.4111 or actorsshakespeareproject.org