Mary, a nondescript newcomer to nondescript Middletown, sits watching her next-door neighbor John attempt to unclog her sink. "I wish I had more gratitude," she says. "When you think of all the miracles it takes just to sit in a chair. A billion things going right, just to sit here. And do nothing."
Mary's lament sums up the worldview playwright Will Eno has articulated in a decade worth of thoughtful, admirably discomfiting plays. Whether it's a pair of psychiatric patients attempting to forge a romance in The Flu Season, a disgruntled monologist trying to recount his troubled childhood to spectators he detests in Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), or four audience members dissecting the melodrama they're watching in Intermission, Eno's characters do their damnedest to believe that life is a wonder while knowing full well that their own lives rarely rise above distracted idleness. If Eno's characters hardly bother to beat their "dead horse of a life" (to quote Thom Pain), it's not from fear, as too many of Eno's critics have lazily opined. Rather, it's because a barely glimpsed yet crushing existential despair makes sitting and doing nothing feel like a life's work.
In his stirring Middletown, getting an uneven but ultimately persuasive Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, Eno's worldview becomes a world. Middletown is built on the site of previous Middletowns, so named because they were midway between other towns, none of which anyone remembers. Its main street is called Main Street. Its population is "stable."
For most of the first act, various Middletownians—an unflappable librarian, an unpredictable cop, an unemployed mechanic, an unhappy handyman, an unimaginative tour guide—interact in ways at once neighborly and inexplicable. The cop, for instance, gives the mechanic a friendly greeting in the opening scene only to put him in a choke hold a few minutes later.
Into the mix comes Mary, hoping to start a family, although her husband is always away on business. Her first task is getting a library card. "Good for you, dear," coos the librarian. "I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.'"
When Middletown premiered in New York last fall, critics lined up to compare it—often dismissively—to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. But the comparison isn't fair. Eno isn't trying to dramatize the simple, ageless marvels of human existence or chronicle some pocket of exurban America. Middletown doesn't have a geography, like Wilder's Grover's Corners. It's a philosophical realm of pure indeterminacy. The cop may insist that everything is what it seems (he dresses and walks like a cop, he explains, so he's a cop), but Middletown's essence is no more definite than its location—somewhere between two unknowns. The town monument is a block of featureless granite that marks the spot where someone once erected a monument.
There are no absolutes or assurances in Middletown. The shadow of death is everywhere, yet its inhabitants can't stop believing their lives have meaning. This isn't Wilder territory. It's that of Beckett and Chekhov.
For most of the first act, Eno's characters try to maintain a sense of purpose. But their elliptical, disjointed dialogue never adequately expresses their thoughts or allows them to connect in more than perfunctory ways. The drama arises from their efforts to express something definite, to anchor themselves in a world where nothing sticks.
Director Les Waters elicits subtle, strong performances from a sterling cast, but fails to convey a sense of urgency during this ruminative first act. Eno's intricate dialogue is allowed to sag and settle, with ideas and images laid out so discretely that they can't tangle up into the resonant knots that enliven so much of the script. It doesn't help that Eno includes two unnecessary scenes—one in which an astronaut describes earth from space and another featuring a group of audience members discussing Middletown—that state themes better dramatized elsewhere.
In the extraordinary second act, despair arrives center stage as Mary, John, the mechanic, and the cop suddenly face soul-wrenching grief. And with its arrival, indeterminacy evaporates. The cop is no longer just a civic functionary in a uniform but a specific person cast in high relief by his reaction to his mother's death. He even gets a name, at last. Despair tethers people to their lives, Eno suggests, and gives them a sense of agency that no amount of wonder can approximate. Waters and his cast express this transformation with such passion and wisdom it's awe-inspiring to watch.