The set-up: There's the miracle of birth, there's the mystery of death, and then there's everything else in between.
No contemporary playwright writes with such passion, theatricality, and comedy about the "in between" than Will Eno (Thom Paine (based on nothing), The Flue Season, The Realistic Joneses). In a thoroughly illuminating production from Catastrophic Theatre, Middletown, Eno's distinctively original off-Broadway prize-winner from 2010 is deliciously shaded with humor and pathos, sadness and awe, and the sublime ordinariness of everyday life. Trying to make sense out of it is the hard part for his cast of average Joes. "Everything is as everything seems," relates the gruff Cop (Rutherford Cravens), talking directly to us, who seconds later blurts out, "My life is a mystery to me." Nothing is remotely like what it seems.
In Eno's little corner of the world called Middletown, no one is truly ordinary or predictable. No one's truly happy, either. But maybe, just maybe, two people can make a connection, something, anything to hold on to, to prove they're not alone. Yeah, right.
The execution: In an exceedingly postmodern riff on Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town, Eno's world is bleakly comic. Laughing in the dark, you might say. Missed connections occur in every impressionistic scene mainly through deliciously wicked non sequiturs - and Eno is a master of this jagged syntax. His characters spew whatever's on their mind, which is usually dire and fraught with existential angst, even when cleaning out a drain or manning the desk at the local library. They never have to be asked what they're thinking; they'll tell you even before you think up the question. The weight of the world and their place in it drives these characters batty, luminously so.
Behold the loopy Mechanic (the plush Kyle Sturdivant, who also directs the play with a ripe, sure hand). Somewhat the play's conscience, he's a peeping Tom and town drunk, who rifles through bags of medical waste in hopes of finding something to dull his pain. He's never been able to live up to expectations. As he confesses with a knowledge misted in alcohol, "I'm nothing special...post natal." A baby's hope is too much of a burden, it's a ton of bricks. "All I see is stupid shaky sad stuff and dark skies and sharp corners." It's poetry like this that keeps us listening, and wanting these folks to find each other. First, of course, the trick is to find themselves.
Some townspeople are so lonely and lost, the only way out is a slash to the wrist. That would be John (Kevin Lusignolo), the town's handyman. Lanky and odd, he seems the most alone of them all. Between crappy jobs, the last one and the next one, he forges a tentative alliance with married Mary (Patricia Duran, who adeptly juggles radiant and morose) who's recently moved into town with her husband, who's away on business and never there when she needs him. She may be adrift, but John is totally without direction. He talks in choppy sentences, phrases mostly, and doesn't seem to know quite how to manage conversation. At the end of their first quiet scene on the park bench, John doesn't say to Mary, 'It's been nice talking to you;' he says, "It's been nice talking." That's Eno at his pinprick best. Lusignolo captures all of John's quirks and tics, and hones them into appealing angles and comfy neuroses. "I'm not crazy, just sad." He's such an adorable loser, he gets our complete sympathy; we root for him to crack open that shell. He cracks, but not how we expect.
But that's life, too. As sunny obtuse Librarian (Lyndsay Sweeney) observes with peppy frankness when asked by newcomer Mary for a library card, "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, Why bother, I'm just going to die anyway." Even disconnects can be painfully funny.
The scene with the most wonder doesn't even occur in Middletown but in outer space. It's a lovely bit of theater fairydust. The town's most famous resident, the Astronaut (Greg Dean), is orbiting in his space capsule. Lit as if from the glow of the instrument panel, he muses to Houston command central about what he sees. Simple and affecting, he describes the earth and the mystery withal. "It doesn't look lonely up here," he says wistfully. "How'd we get so lucky?" (The amazing Mr. Dean also gets to introduce the play in the guise of Public Speaker. In a magnetic opening monologue that sets the tone for all the dazzling wordplay to come, he welcomes everyone - and I mean everyone, every type, every niche, the cranky, the silent, the diseased, the disowned. This tour de force rant is the play in capsule form, and Dean almost stops the show before it begins. Another gem is the Male Doctor (Xzavien Hollins in full frontal comic attack) who advises pregnant Mary on the joys of motherhood. This brief scene is full of wonder, silliness, and truth. Hollins spins like a pinwheel. You can see him spark. Playwright Eno simultaneously squirts seltzer in our face while he marvels at the all-too-human spirit. Scenes like this can break your heart and mend it at the same time.
Not everything works as smoothly. The scene with the obnoxious tourists (Amy Bruce, much more memorable later as the Female Doctor, and Kevin Jones) and clueless town guide (Miranda Herbert Aston) and the "Intermission" scene, where five "audience members" (among them Candice D'Meza and Karen Morey) discuss Act I before the actual intermission, are obvious and written with a much heavier hand than Eno matchlessly employs elsewhere. The satire's awfully thick, as he lays out his thesis with an unnecessary thud.
Eno's strange beauties are made visible by mighty superlative dreamwork from scenic designer Ryan McGettigan (who's on a roll this season). The sides of the stage are masked by brick walls, brightly painted with vivid blue sky and puffy clouds. We're told by the Librarian that Middletown is renowned for its excellent clouds, and here they are, substantially surreal. These clouds could kill. Mary and John's houses are see-through wooden silhouettes, which allow their drab lives to be plainly visible for all to see. Later, a detailed hospital room will be rolled on, white curtain dividers and all. Superb lighting from Dustin Tannahill (the twilight scenes are outstandingly graceful), bracing costumes from Macy Lyne, and creepy sound design from Chris Bakos intensify and highlight the skewed mood. There's a touch of genius in the cheery '50s TV theme music used to bridge the scenes. It sounds innocuous, comforting, and then rather terrifying. It's a complete picture over at Catastrophic - a priceless Eno.
The verdict: Darkness and sadness hover and envelop us. We may be alone in Middletown, but we're not all that different from our neighbors. All we want is love and a little beauty. All we have to do is reach out. Eno and Catastrophic have stretched out their hands. Grab hold and find redemption - along with an invigorating blast of powerhouse theater.
Middletown. Through June 14. 1119 East Freeway at Naylor and Main Street. Purchase tickets online at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. $25.
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