‘Middletown’: A theater review

Review by Elyse Trevers

Long-term friendships take many forms and often relationships are tested along the way. In Middletown, playwright Dan Clancy sets up two mismatched couples and follows their friendship over 37 years.

Don and Dotty Abrams and Tom and Peg Hogan live in Middletown, New Jersey and become friends through the women. Dotty (bubbly Didi Conn of Grease) and Peg (Sandy Duncan of Peter Pan fame) meet on the first day of school when their daughters begin kindergarten. They begin to have coffee together regularly and then a month into their friendship, arrange to include their husbands who bond over American beer.

The couples are markedly different. Dotty is garrulous and humorous while Peg is staid and somber. Adrian Zmed (T.J.Hooker) plays Tom while Donny Most, familiar to many as Ralph Malph from “Happy Days” is Dotty’s husband Don. Tom writes poetry while Don likes sports. Peg and Tom met at a book signing while Dotty met Tom at a bar. Despite their differences, their friendship grows over the years.

Peg introduces the show, noting that the actors didn’t even learn their parts, so they will use the scripts on the music stands in front of them. The play is presented with no scenery on a bare stage and the four performers wear street clothes.

The characters take turns narrating the action and there are a couple of clever moments. To show time passing, playwright Clancey has the actors rapidly shout out a word or two showing their activities – “dance, gymnastics, stronger glasses, work, bigger sizes,” ending with ‘drive, drive, drive.” (Those in the audience who drove countless carpools laughed at that.)

With no costumes changes or makeup to show aging, the characters describe the passage of time: A 40th birthday party or kids going to college. When Dotty goes through menopause, she says that when she opens a window, she can’t recall “did I want some air or want to jump?” There are other cute one-liners, mostly delivered by Conn. On aging- “ My face has more lines than a sonnet.”

Over the years, many events occur. The problem is that playwright Clancey attempts to cover everything in the course of 80 minutes. Infidelity, cancer, homosexuality, impotency, Alzheimer’s and even loss on 9/11. (Spoiler alert ) Fortunately, the characters never have affairs with one another. Instead of focusing on a few ideas, Clancy touches on everything he can and does them quickly. Sometimes in only a few lines. By doing so, he lessens the impact of important crucial events. As the show continues, the storyline becomes much too predictable.

Conn is as bubbly as the part allows, making Dotty brash and feisty. The other three performers, all familiar from old movies and TV, are capable but don’t have much opportunity to act.

The show will appeal mostly to viewers of a certain generation who will recognize the couples’ experiences. Viewers may feel nostalgic watching familiar old-time movie and TV performers.

At one point in the show, Dotty and Don go to see Fiddler on the Roof presented by a community theater. Don laughingly disparages the weak performances of the performers. Ironically, Middletown is probably best suited for community theater and dinner theater (if it ever returns) since the only requirement is four competent actors.

Directed by Seth Greenleaf, the play was on tour interrupted by the pandemic. The streaming version I watched was available on demand until April 4 and was presented in front of a live audience. So the actors were able to get audience reactions and occasionally get some laughs. The producers hope to send the show out on tour once it is safe to perform in front of live audiences again.

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