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Theater Review: "Middletown" at Harlequin Productions

For tonight, it's the meaning of life

Harlequin Production: Jenny Vaughn Hall and Bill Johns star in "Middletown." Photo credit: Scot Whitney

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One of the things I love, and there are many, about our South Sound theater community is that it's big enough to allow a broad spectrum of material. Some, obviously, I like more than the rest, but that diversity means I don't have to watch Grease or Annie every year (just every other). Same goes for Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic, Our Town. Don't get me wrong, that's a great script, but from 76 years ago. Is it really still our town? Is that how we live now? Does it play as a deep rumination on modern life, or as nostalgia for a time before most of us were born? The answer depends on individual productions, though all face an uphill climb.

Then there's Will Eno, a playwright (and Pulitzer finalist) born in 1965, and cocky enough to write his own, 21st-century take on Our Town. The resulting script, Middletown, is less than four years old, so it truly is about the meaning of life in our time. Its ad copy emphasizes the arc of life from birth to death, and that's a fair summation of the play. An anti-Seinfeld, it's a show about everything. It's loaded with jokes, but none are delivered as jokes. We laugh a few seconds later, having solved a mental puzzle.

Well, some of us do. The gentlemen who sat in front of me spent Act I hating Middletown's guts with his whole body. Without so much as a visible facial expression, his writhing and posture communicated volumes about his deep execration of the show. I can't argue with his subjective response. I heard another audience member grouse the play was "like watching moss grow." Harsh!-and, from where I sat, both fair and unfair. Act I is certainly more concerned with setting up character relationships and philosophical themes than plot or story. Luckily, its dialogue is funny and thoughtful enough to carry us through intermission into Act II, where things progress rapidly indeed for several characters. I liked the play some as I watched, more as I write this two days later. It landed.

Harlequin and director Aaron Lamb give it their all. I noticed Alec Clayton immediately lauded the ensemble in his seasonal awards, and that's spot-on. Performances that'd be jaw-droppers in any other show, like those of Mike Dooly as a ne'er-do-well mechanic or Bill Johns as a depressed handyman, blend into a cast as skilled as any I've seen in years, anywhere. They hit every note. Dooly's curtain speech alone should earn him a crisp $100 bill every night.

This show's thinkiness will continue to be divisive. Harlequin made the bold choice to stage what might be, as Title of Show puts it, "nine people's favorite thing, (rather) than a hundred people's ninth-favorite thing." I admire that.

MIDDLETOWN, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 13, Harlequin Productions, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, $20-$31, 360.786.0151

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