Just how far have the social structures decayed at the start of playwright Will Eno's Middletown? Judge by the town librarian's unalloyed delight when a newcomer applies for a new card: "I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.'" Then there's the curt police officer, a man whose increasing ambivalence about maintaining law and order leads him to apologize to the sketchy street person he's throttling with a Maglite (while maintaining the chokehold), before explaining, "I'm just trying to imitate nature."
They're hardly alone—except, of course, in the philosophical sense—in this small but decidedly existential little village where the biggest pastime involves wrestling with potentially moribund beliefs. When a native tour guide (Tara-Whitney Rison) confesses that she thought her small town was the world as a child, a snarky tourist takes a picture of her "being wrong."
Identity crises plague multiple characters. The street person, who's also the town mechanic (Jeffrey Moore), asserts: "I was someone's golden child. Someone's little hope. Now I'm more just, you know, a local resident." The life of out-of-work divorcée John Dodge (Thaddaeus Edwards) is so dysfunctional, he's actually jealous of victims of identity theft: "Just take it," he says at one point. "Good riddance."
Under Jeff Storer's discerning direction, Barbara Dickinson's forthright New England librarian almost unconsciously knocks a long-term decline in faith, reading from a book in which natives observing a medicine man "listened quietly and quietly misunderstood." Similarly, when David Berberian's cop concludes a brief nighttime investigation, he says: "OK. Pray the Lord your soul to keep. Something like that. Whatever makes you feel calm." Berberian pauses, and then gruffly says, "Just be all right."
If such high-level doubts don't seem the stuff of comedy, rest assured, Eno's two acts are a minefield of rhetorical double-backs and banana peels. When Madeleine Lambert's Mary, the newcomer, admits that she and her husband have been trying to start a family, Moore's loopy mechanic mimes hitting a recalcitrant jalopy: "Come on, family—start! Start, you bastard!" After saying she'd been trying for a year, the librarian gently concludes, "And I imagine it must be about the same for your husband." Groucho Marx, call your office.
It's a cagey, and effective, gambit, since Eno's plentiful jokes illuminate what is frequently a fairly dark path. His characters question what they're doing with their lives and their relationships, frequently with good reason. A wife who's begun to define a marriage by her husband's perpetual absence reaches out in a tentative, and certainly deniable, way to another very lonely person, who complains of nights filled with "almost nonstop meaningful silence."
Increasingly we get the sense that Middletown's inhabitants are stuck in what they imagine to be the middle of their lives. Some are at peace with that. Others distract themselves with various pursuits while time passes. Eno's characters repeatedly pursue, and fumble with, the ineffable in their lives. They try to construct meaning and only sometimes succeed. They make big mistakes and pay full price for them, in their comings and goings.
In Eno's thoughtful hands, it's the human comedy: uproarious at points, poignant at others and bittersweet at best. Under the circumstances, it's no spoiler to reveal that, ultimately, the joke's on us.