Chrissy Gardner, Margaret Mann and Steven Scarpa.


Lots of plays contend with birth or death. Some get to both.

Middletown—staging locally thanks to the New Haven Theater Company—is one of them, but, true to its name, it plants its flag between.

Across a dark, liminal stage that becomes a library, a hospital and outer space, the actors shuttle between the indoors and the outdoors and from gregarious cheer to aching loneliness. The characters’ short chats about small-town goings-on seem somehow even more desperate than their frank admissions of sadness.

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The one who typifies this is John Dodge, played with tense cheer by Steven Scarpa. An aimless handyman, he latches onto new arrival Mary Swanson (Chrissy Gardner), who provides a sympathetic ear to his creeping disillusionment with life.

At first, Mary seems unreflective. While other characters wax philosophical about geological layers and local monuments, she observes with befuddlement. Her ostensible reasons for coming to Middletown are simple and incidental: She and her husband want to start a family and sleepy Middletown is as good a place as any. But Mary soon finds herself facing the prospect of creating and raising new life alone, and it becomes as daunting to her as John’s existential despair is to him.

Middletown’s middlenesses don’t calibrate around a centerpoint but between counterpoints, two of which are the past and the future. As for the past, the town sits on a Native American settlement that vanished abruptly, as the Librarian (Margaret Mann) blithely explains. What was left were artifacts and ashes pressed into an archeological layer beneath the town, and stories interpreted clumsily by those who came afterwards.

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Then there’s the inherent futurism of space travel. “It’s a beautiful night, whether or not there’s anything up there,” sighs the Librarian one evening, and as it happens, there is. High above Middletown, Greg the astronaut—whose hometown is Middletown—ponders the beauty of the earth below. Played by J. Kevin Smith, he perches on a ladder, suspended in space.

It may be a nod to the play’s spiritual ancestor, Thornton Wilder’s much-produced Our Town. Also set in a mystical small town, that play has a famous scene with two characters talking atop ladders, as if out of high windows. In Middletown, there’s also a conversation happening, but between the astronaut and Ground Control. Somehow, though he’s alone in the vastness of space, Greg seems more content than many people on the ground.

Albeit with plenty of eccentricity, Middletown, in a way, is more a play of archetypes than Our Town. Many characters are defined by—often literally named for—what they do for a living. The Cop, played by George Kulp, embodies two archetypes. White-haired and stately, sometimes he’s the ideal friendly neighborhood policeman. But he also stalks the town deadbeat—unemployed Mechanic (Trevor Williams)—with a psychotic, power-mad verve.

Characters occasionally break the fourth wall, especially the Cop. “People always look so worried,” he laments, looking out into the audience as if they hadn’t seen him throttling the Mechanic in one of the first scenes. His wish for Middletown to “sleep tight” seems more like a threat than an endearment.

At the midpoint of the play, five chairs are arranged facing the audience. The actors who fill them become the audience; for them, the lights have come up, and they are dissecting what they—we—have seen in the first act. It’s a last breath before the play gallops to its conclusion in the second act, which takes place in a hospital, where the promises of the first are played out to logical but not necessarily predictable conclusions.

Hospitals seem like in-between places, with their bland decor and windowless rooms, but for most they are a place of beginning and ending. Of two doctor characters (played by J. Kevin Smith and Megan Chenot, who also composed the music and sound design), one is frazzled but soulful, while the other is kind yet flintily practical. For them, confronting matters of life and death is just another day on the job.

In the hospital, as in the rest of the town, as in outer space, and in life itself, beginnings and endings don’t stop the world from turning.

Middletown, produced by the New Haven Theater Company
Written by Will Eno. Directed by Peter Chenot.
839 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Remaining showtimes: May 4, 5 and 6 at 8pm

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photo provided courtesy of the New Haven Theater Company.

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