There are some things that are not meant to be recycled. Waxy cardboard milk cartons. Used paper plates. Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
Like a well-intentioned but intoxicated fraternity brother who puts the used paper plates in the recycling been where they do not belong, Will Eno in Middletown attempts to recycle Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic for the urban millennial set.
It doesn’t work. Instead, Eno sucks the charm and generosity of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, leaving Middletown’s Middletown a soulless place.
In Eno’s Brooklynite view, small town America is a hopeless place full of lonely, vice-filled people defined by their occupations. Middletown’s are particularly prone to contemplating the meaningless of existence. Eno throws in some Brechtian direct address and some self-effacing metatheatricality and viowla! Eno’s checked all of the boxes of a “meditative” new play, by “an edgy, up-and-coming, young playwright.”
Eno’s play has no compassion for its characters or their situations. Though this is a valid theatrical technique (see Brecht), in this case, the lack of emotion, of catharsis, does not induce thoughtful contemplation of, well, anything. If there is a larger socio-political point to Middletown, it is that loneliness is a base element of existence and that small towns are laboratories of such alienation. This is neither revolutionary nor particularly insightful and so Middletown’s characters become pawns in art for art’s sake, for big city audiences to applaud their own intellectualism and belch self-congratulatory accolades.
The future of small-town America is, frankly, bleak. Just about any social scientist will tell you: there are few opportunities for economic growth in Small Town USA. The global economy of scale is making small businesses, farms, industries decreasingly viable. But must we — those of us lucky or blessed with the economic opportunities of urban or suburban life – smirk at the smallness and hopelessness of small town life, as Middletown would have us do?
No, we can choose compassion and empathy. And you can choose not to read or see Will Eno’s Middletown.
Up Next: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Promise.
Why? After my false promise two weeks ago, I am going to finish it.