CAMBRIDGE — “I just want to be a regular living person.” That’s John Dodge speaking in Will Eno’s 2010 drama “Middletown.” The play is full of regular-seeming people, like a Cop, a Librarian, a Mechanic, a Landscaper, and a Tour Guide. And apart from a birth and a death, nothing very spectacular happens. But over the course of 2½ hours, Middletonians speculate as to what ought to happen between birth and death, as well as what might come before and after. In the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production now up at the Cambridge YMCA, the town is a tough but rewarding destination.
Opening with an introduction from the Public Speaker, and expressing, in the Mechanic’s words, the thought “People don’t stop to think how lucky they are,” “Middletown” is a kind of gloss on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” At the end of the first act, an Intermission Audience takes the stage to comment on what we’ve just seen; one of its members even shows up as a character in the second act. A more detached perspective is provided by the town’s one notable native son, astronaut Greg, who waxes poetic from his space capsule, to Houston’s dismay. But most Middletonians might as well be stranded in the cosmos, for all the direction they’re able to give their lives. “People come, people go,” the Cop explains. “Crying, by the way, in both directions.”
At the Cambridge YMCA, there’s no greeting from the artistic director, no “Please turn off your cellphones.” The performance starts with a bang, the Public Speaker (Gabriel Kuttner) bursting into the balcony to address us all, “every last lone dying and inconsolably lonely person.” It’s as if the play were being born, as if director Doug Lockwood were anticipating the Male Doctor’s description of “even the gentlest birth” as feeling “like a car crash.”
In the course of the first act, the Cop (Kuttner) hassles the Mechanic (Steven Barkhimer); Mrs. Swanson (Marianna Bassham), who’s new in town, introduces herself to the Librarian (Paula Langton); and a Tour Guide (Esme Allen) tries to sell a pair of tourists (Grant McDermott and Margaret Lamb) on the beauties of Middletown. There are a lot of monologues to the audience, the characters finding it easier to speak to us than to each other. Gradually the play focuses on the budding friendship between Mrs. Swanson, who with her traveling-salesman husband is trying to start a family, and John Dodge (Michael Forden Walker), a jack-of-all-trades who’s a walking panic attack. But it’s the Intermission Audience (Langton, Lamb, McDermott, Barkhimer, and Allen) whose members converse freely, and that seems to cue the second act, where, as ugly hospital beds come out, barriers are broken down and first names are even spoken.
The acting is uniformly gratifying, from Kuttner’s crusty Cop to Barkhimer’s alcoholic Mechanic to Langton’s first ditsy and then sympathizing Librarian. Walker, seeming perpetually lost in time and space, has the measure of everyman John Dodge. Bassham’s wry, awkward Mrs. Swanson is the touchstone, reaching out despite being repeatedly nonplussed by her new acquaintances’ non-sequiturs.
But what makes “Middletown” worth the visit is the way it plays at the YMCA. Emily Nichols’s set spreads the action over three levels, from the Librarian’s information desk on the floor at one end of the narrow space to Mrs. Swanson’s dated kitchen at the other, with a dingy black-and-white linoleum floor in between and a big white wooden ladder leading up to the balcony. The doors by which the actors enter and leave are marked “Exit,” as if to suggest that everything we do is a kind of goodbye. Still, this “Middletown” says hello in a way that will make you glad you came.