Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Edison Graff for GFour Productions.
Like A.R. Gurney’s classic Love Letters, Dan Clancy’s Middletown, now playing at the Apollo Theatre, is designed not to be performed with a full set, props, and costumes but on a bare stage with actors reading from scripts. Also like Love Letters, this play follows its characters over many years of their lives as it serves up a heaping helping of emotion in its 90-minute playing time. Directed by Seth Greenleaf and featuring four strong (and familiar) actors, Middletown is more than the roller coaster ride that the metaphor on the program cover suggests. It is funny, painful, honest, and poignant, along with enough other feelings to fill a dictionary; in other words, it is nothing less than the journey of life in an hour and a half.
Sandy Duncan, Adrian Zmed, Donny Most and Kate Buddeke play two couples who, having met when their daughters attended kindergarten together, become best friends over the course of a lifetime, sharing each other’s joys, sorrows, and troubles over dinners every Friday night for 33 years. These two couples grow older together as we watch and listen, experiencing all of the happiness and pain that comes with living. Instead of focusing on the usual trappings of a play, we focus only on the words and the emotions presented through detailed and carefully developed performances.
You might think that a structure that basically consists of four actors standing in a row reading from scripts is unlikely to be as moving as watching a more traditional play, and to an extent you may be right. Clancy seems to realize it as well, and spends part of the early moments of the play in a bit of meta-examination of the format. For example, Duncan very early on makes a joke about being so old that she has trouble memorizing things. Later, the characters engage in a whirlwind round-robin about their religions, astrological signs, favorite drinks, etc., and when at one point the other actors seem incredulous about one of Buddeke’s responses, she stops, shrugs, looks sheepish, and declares that she’s only reading what is on the script in front of her. It gets a laugh, but Clancy’s choice of a staged reading format is critical for the play: in eliminating the realism we are used to, it allows us to join in all of the key moments of two marriages over three decades without resorting to any stage trickery. The burden is completely on the actors: if they cannot engage us, all is lost before it even starts.
But engage us they do indeed, from Duncan’s naturalistic opening monologue, which we only gradually come to understand is not the star but the character speaking, through to the final monologue that bookends the play. In between, we witness life as it is actually lived with all of its pathos and humor. Everything that happens here is utterly familiar. Clancy is not trying to wow us with unexpected plot twists; rather, he is (through cleverly written repartée among four people just like us) handing us a mirror to see ourselves. He isn’t subtle, but then life rarely is either. These characters go through birthdays, Alzheimer’s, weddings, cancer, 9/11, affairs, and even death, and Clancy pulls no punches with any of them. Sure, some of these provide fairly easy ways for a writer to solicit emotional reactions from an audience, but nothing here comes across as cheap or unearned. The moments are only effective because we have gotten to know and like these people, and Duncan, Most, Zmed and Buddeke all have standout moments that help us to do so.
Though Duncan’s quiet, thoughtful Peg is the emotional center of the play, Buddeke steals the show throughout the evening with her portrayal of the coarse, martini-swilling second grade teacher Dotty, who recognizes that she is doing a lousy job as a mother but is eventually rewarded with the unmitigated joy of being a grandmother. As for the men, Zmed’s wannabe-poet Tom presents an easy contrast with Most’s bluntly uneducated but nonetheless successful Don. Both the men and the women prove that opposites can indeed attract as they complement each other perfectly, and all four actors create such strong characters that they often make us forget that we are watching a staged reading even though the evidence is always right before our eyes.
Middletown doesn’t have the kind of powerful moments that elicit fireworks (though a few might invite waterworks), but that isn’t its intention. This play suggests that all of us, despite our roller coaster lives, ultimately find our comfort zones—our centers—and we help each other through our happiness and sorrow there. What better, really, can we hope for from life?
Middletown is now playing at the Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, until Mar 22. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.