The Chance Theater presents the Southern California premiere of Will Eno’s award-winning play.

James McHale and Lola Kelly in Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Trevor Biship, at Chance Theater.
James McHale and Lola Kelly in Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Trevor Biship, at Chance Theater.
(© Doug Catiller)

Middletown, a delicate, essentially plotless play about Anywhere, U.S.A., and how human connection is essential for our survival, requires actors to be able to fill the void that playwright Will Eno has left in the script. For this play to be successful, the cast must work extra hard to draw in the audience and make these fragile characters come alive. Sadly, for the most part, the cast at the Chance is not up to the task.

Through various vignettes, the audience glimpses the lives of Middletown's locals, such as the cop (Robert Foran), the librarian (Karen Webster), the tour guide (Karen O'Hanlon), and the town drunk (Ned Liebl). New resident Mary Swanson (Lola Kelly) spends most of her time alone in town, since her husband appears to work far away. She builds a friendship with lonely John Dodge (James McHale), but even their connection is tenuous.

Eno has deconstructed the theater experience with Middletown. Cast members pretend to be the audience right before the intermission. They discuss the previous act and what it all may mean. At the end of Act 2, one of those audience members enters the action of the play. Eno's characters are skeletons with which the audience must imagine the outer layers.

It's almost avant-garde how the characters all speak English yet seem to address each other in languages different from their own. Everyone in town talks, but no one seems to listen. The cadence is arrhythmic to the ear, making it almost poetic. Therefore, a nuanced cast must really delve into the text and find the meat. However, at this production, the intentions feel jumbled and garbled, as though the actors do not understand what they're conveying, making it impossible for the audience to catch the meaning effectively.

Director Trevor Biship allows the cast to punctuate their dialogue awkwardly with their arms and hands, gestures that come off as hammy and unnatural. The dialogue is performed in a stilted manner, which is more atonal because of Eno's style.

However, there are several intimate scenes that do work beautifully. Webster, playing a doctor, has two compassionate moments, one with McHale and another with Liebl. Kelly and McHale capture noticeable chemistry in their scenes together. The cast standout is Liebl as the disheveled addict who clashes with the cop and acts like a Greek chorus at times. In every scene, he builds his own universe, which is unique, funny, and organic.

Biship choreographs a believable scene in a space shuttle, where Middletown's favorite son (Ahmed T. Brooks) floats weightlessly through the sky. The lighting (by Karyn D. Lawrence) and sound design (by Ryan Brodkin), along with Brooks' manipulation of his own body, evoke a realistic set piece in outer space. Bruce Goodrich's set is a clever collision of ideas: The grassy perimeter of people's homes anonymously in a row, and the rising and falling orbs that represent the globe, are all realistic parts of a surrealist composition.

Middletown is a complicated piece, filled with metaphysics, Indian folklore, and the enormity of the cosmos. Though the cast nobly tries, the evening is a record needle that never finds its groove.

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Closed: May 21, 2017