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Writing, staging, acting make ‘Middletown’ hit of summer season

Harlequin Productions’ “Middletown” is the surprise hit of the season. The play by Will Eno, which has been called absurdist and surrealistic and an “Our Town” for the 21st century, is brilliantly written and performed with style and sincerity by an outstanding cast on a minimalist set.

The set by Jeannie Beirne consists of simple drop-down windows and a few tables, chairs and beds that are unobtrusively moved about between scenes. Video projections by Amy Chisman cast scenes from the past to the future in small-town America. The projected opening scene looks like an idyllic small town as painted by Edward Hopper, but this town is populated by citizens who could have been invented by Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Becket.

Right off the bat they break the fourth wall when Mike Dooly as a droll commentator in the “Our Town” mold welcomes the audience. It is unclear if what we’re experiencing is a curtain speech or a part of the play; what is clear, however, is that he is hilarious. And then the play-proper begins with Dooly again, now a drunk on a park bench being hassled by a cop (Scott C. Brown) who is frightening because he changes in the blink of an eye from friendly and down-to-earth to bully with gun and night stick.

There doesn’t seem to be any story arc at first, as we go from scene to scene viewing the citizens of Middletown from a range of perspectives, from that of a librarian (Walayn Sharples) to stereotypical, photo-shooting tourists (Josh Krupke and Lorrie Fargo) being given a tour by Elex Hill, to an astronaut viewing the town from outer space. But gradually a sweet and sad story begins to emerge as a budding relationship develops between a newcomer to town, Mrs. Swanson (Jenny Vaughn Hall), and a handyman named John Dodge (played brilliantly by Bill Johns). Dodge is a sad misfit. Swanson, whose working-out-of-town husband we never see, is friendly and loveable, but underneath her charm also lies a deep sadness. Sparks between these two are evident from the moment they meet.

I cannot praise the acting in this play enough.

Johns, in his first role at Harlequin, comes to the Olympia stage from Seattle, where he has performed in “The Adventures of Kavelier and Clay” and “Frankenstein,” both at Book-It Repertory Theatre. He has a way of quickly changing expressions that reminds me of Tim Conway from the old Carol Burnett show. He goes easily from comedy to tragedy in what may well be the best acting I’ve seen this year.

Also exceptional is Dooly as the mechanic who comments wisely on the absurdities of life in his drunken manner and who also touches the hearts fellow characters and audience alike.

Hall is charming and expressive as Mrs. Swanson. Like Dooly and Johns, she touches the heart and makes the audience want to root for her.

I’ve been following Brown’s career since I first saw him as Salieri in “Amadeus” and as R.C. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Lakewood Playhouse (I chose him as Best Actor in my annual Critic’s Choice for both roles). No matter what part he plays, he becomes the character. As the cop in this show, he starts out as an almost demonic bad guy but becomes a real softy by the tragic end.

“Middletown” is as funny, as intelligent, and as heartwrenching as any play can be. Eno’s writing is rife with sharp observations on the human condition, but is never pedantic. The philosophy and psychology, the pathos and humor, is all served up in the words of everyday people who are absolutely believable. I highly recommend this play.

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