RSAT Middletown photo by Jodie Hutchinson I had previously thought of playwriting as a craft. However, as I watched the Australian premiere of Middletown (premiered off-Broadway in 2010) by Will Eno, I gained conviction for a recent thought that maybe it’s more of a game.

On a few recent outings it’s seemed that we’re living in a time when breadth or novelty trumps depth. The thought shouldn’t have been a surprise — pretty much everything is a game. And some of the more important ones are similar whether the towns are bigger or smaller. Some people suffer from having being dealt a bad hand, or lacking the skills to play.

Middletown has a few residents like this. Craig (Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Jurassica) is losing; he’s directionless and prone to drinking in public. His presence often antagonises a local cop (James Wardlaw, Uncle Vanya in Avoca), a moody middle-aged man suffering from a lack of impulse control. John Dodge (Gareth Reeves, Julius Caesar) is a young man between jobs, and while he adopts and quickly loses interest in a series of hobbies, he’s committed to lengthy periods of staring out his window.

Mary Swanson (Christina O’Neil, Belleville) also tends to observe the world from behind the safety of glass. She’s playing solitaire having just moved to town, missing the company and support of her travelling salesman husband. The promotional material tells us “Along with her fellow townsfolk, Mary searches for comfort and meaning in this small American town, somewhere between a beginning and an end.”

Which would be fine, except that she doesn’t seem to search all that hard. Mary’s time is limited though, given the many characters and stories that inhabit the play. Her conversations with John don’t develop far, and she moves on to other concerns. Seeing various townsfolk grieving, for either the loss of loved ones or their own potential, I thought we would get some topical comment, such as on the benefit of social connectedness to health. However, we’re not given this kind of exploration.

Instead, what we seem to get at times is the chance for the playwright to show us some results of his reading. We learn that a rock can be probed with light and sound, as can a foetus in utero. Gravity, the subject of John’s passing science interest, is referenced in a later radio show on black holes. Such repetition showed a superficial link between concepts or characters, and made me feel that I was playing a long game of ‘Concentration’.

Even though I could match at least some pairs thrown up by the text, I often wasn’t spurred towards having to feel or think anything about it.  As a result, Middletown often seemed a laboured, verbose way of showing connections between parts of the universe. It is also unfortunate that one of Mary’s decisions telegraphs a major event. Overall, the play seemed a bit long and unfocused at a touch over 2 hours.

There is a lot to like in the performances though. Evelyn Krape (More Female Parts) shows her versatility through a diversity of roles, especially as a professional doctor compassionate enough to bend the rules. Edwina Samuels (The Crucible) does well with characters just trying to go about their jobs despite the oddity of situations.

When not imitating the Winners and Losers style of extreme acting (cramming as many facial expressions into a scene as possible) O’Neill gives a touching portrayal of a woman anxious about an uncertain future. Reeves is effective in making John a damaged but real person, balancing social awkwardness with awareness of the need to at least try and conceal it.

Even though he’s a very well groomed drunk, Fraser-Trumble makes the story of Craig the most convincing, as he progresses to working out his role in the town. Wardle was a great piece of casting in various roles; in particular, his imposing frame gives menace to the hardened cop’s stance, while his features readily morph from fury borne of civic-pride into remorse.

From Wardle’s fast-patter introduction onwards, the whole ensemble did well with the comedic moments of the piece, some of them quite dark. Unexpectedly reviving my interest, I found these to be the highlights of Alice Darling’s direction, along with Craig’s journey. A snappy scene that departs from Middletown just before interval was a definite crowd pleaser. A fragment of this that appears much later made me wonder if the play might better repay a re-read than a single viewing.

I don’t know if there will be much of a middle ground for audiences of Middletown. Those who didn’t share my reservations on Detroit may similarly enjoy this work. It is likely to reward those who prize inventiveness in the telling of a tale.

Director: Alice Darling Featuring: Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Evelyn Krape, Christina O’Neill, Gareth Reeves, Edwina Samuels, James Wardlaw  Assistant Director: James Cook  Set & Costume Design: Emily Collett  Lighting Design: James Lipari  Sound Design: Chris Wenn  Choreographer: Dale Thorburn

Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St. Kilda East
Performance: Sunday 22 November 2015 – 6.00pm
Season continues to 19 December 2015
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 or online at: www.redstitch.net

For more information, visit: www.redstitch.net for details.

Image: Edwina Samuels, Evelyn Krape and James Wardlaw in Middletown – photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Jason Whyte