Friendships that Shape a Life Movingly Explored in ‘Middletown’

Middletown by Dan Clancy, which was first staged shortly before the pandemic, has arrived at Miami’s Actor’s Playhouse, as part of a rotating-cast tour co-produced by GFour Productions. This unapologetically sentimental show takes you on “the ride of your life,” at least as its roller coaster tagline would have it. That ride, though, is less a thrill-packed shocker than a mostly-comforting coast through two couples’ relatively average middle class lives, which they happen to be living in Middletown, New Jersey. 

Yet the sometimes middling, sometimes heart-breaking, and sometimes hilarious stuff of ordinary life is given new life in this play’s moving encapsulation. Entertainment value and relatability were clearly the goal here rather than originality or even much commentary, but on the former fronts it clearly succeeds.

To tell its tale, Middletown uses no scenery or stage tricks, besides some enlivening lighting changes, and in fact doesn’t even require the actors to have memorized their lines. Instead, they read from scripts set on four podiums, sometimes changing positions or breaking away to interact with each other or address the audience directly but never coming fully off-book. 

Adrian Zmed and Didi Conn. Photo by Alberto Romeu

Quickly, though, the scripts and sparseness become barely noticeable amidst the play’s constant motion as it tears through something in the realm of four decades in around 90 minutes. On the way, it explores the trials and travails of parenthood and aging while hitting on speed bumps ranging from infidelity to life-altering diagnoses to, perhaps most affectingly, being personally touched by a nationwide tragedy. 

But though Middletown crosses paths with plenty of loss, it also contains plenty of humor, with witty one-liners peppered throughout. Its central focus, though, is on neither grief nor comedy but in fact on friendship. After Dotty and Pam become instant BFFs in their daughters’ kindergarten schoolyard and later bring their respective husbands Don and Tom into the fold, a winning friendship forms between the foursome. 

To the extent, then, that a show that touches on so much can be accurately described as being about any one thing, it is about how that one moment of crossed paths shaded everything that came after; how life’s inevitable losses were made more bearable and its victories made sweeter given close confidantes who can share in and support each other through both.

Photo by Alberto Romeu.

Middletown was impeccably directed by the Tony winning Broadway veteran Seth Greenleaf and features an impressive cast of four actors with major star power, made famous with roles in classics like Grease, Mash, Happy Days, and TJ Hooker

While I’m somewhat critical of so much FL stage space being occupied by out-of-towners as opposed to our wealth of similarly talented local actors and actresses, it was hard to find much to criticize in the casts’ performances. 

Loretta Swit conveys an effortless charisma and ease as Dotty, and it’s hard to believe that her co-star Didi Conn has actually played the brasher Dotty in previous iterations of Middletown considering how naturally she embodies subdued, bookish Pam in this one. Though the male characters came across to me as a little less distinct and developed than their female counterparts, actors Adrian Zmed and Donny Most also do a fine job of taking us through the scripts’ emotional ups and downs. 

It also wasn’t lost on me that I was, for the second time in recent memory, not exactly part of the play’s target audience, given that the characters’ advancing age and place in a different generation would, theoretically, also place most of their experiences out of my sphere of direct familiarity. 

And yet, I found the moments when Middletown comes up against mortality almost more moving and jarring than I imagine older audience members might. As a thus-far more-or-less invincible twenty-something, I think there’s been a way in which I haven’t yet graspedor haven’t yet had to grasp how truly finite and fragile that the stuff of life really is, even under the pandemic’s weight.

As cliche as it sounds, there’s few of us who couldn’t use a reminder of the importance of how speedily life can pass us by if we aren’t paying it enough attention, and taking the time to appreciate our loved ones as we go. You have until this December 12 to catch Middletown before this rolicking coaster of a play rolls on to its next destination, and this absorbing and enjoyable play can serve as just such a reminder well-suited to closing out this whiplash-inducing whirlwind of a year.

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