REVIEW: Star-studded ‘Middletown’ explores the beauty of friendship at Bucks County Playhouse

(L to R) Adrian Zmed, Didi Conn, Cindy Williams, and Don Most (Photo: Ira Kuzma)

By John Dwyer

When I saw the ad for “Middletown,” with the faces of so many TV and movie personalities from the late ’70s and early ’80s, it harkened me back to the days of summer stock theater when you would see Betsy Palmer in “South Pacific” at the Kenley Players or Gene Rayburn in “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Bucks County Playhouse. I loved that growing up. TV stars, both past and present, would come to summer stock and perform, and it was joyous and magical. But this is not exactly that. It is something more.

Yes, it is very much in the tradition of a summer stock playhouse, and the Bucks County Theater was the grande dame to all summer stock theaters. But the Bucks County Playhouse, to those in the know, was always something more than that, as well.

It was an Equity house where new work was getting done, and also brought attention to plays that should be getting seen more. It was a place that took chances. It was intellectual. It was smart. It was engaging. And, though this show is not being produced by the Playhouse, they wisely brought in this comedy-drama “Middletown” by Dan Clancy.

Cindy Williams and Don Most (Photo: Ira Kuzma)

When I saw the title, I initially thought this was the play by Will Eno. No — different play. Though both deal with some of the same questions of who we are, who we were, and who we are going to be.

Dan Clancy has written other notable work such as “Volunteer Man,” “The Timekeepers,” “At Home” and his work and the performance of it have been up for an Obie and had a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) nomination for Best Play for “Volunteer Man.”

What is special about “Middletown” is that it is a journey of friendship between two straight married couples, with all the bumps in the road that life and a friendship can bring. So many people across the country have been charmed and uplifted by “Love Letters,” a romantic journey. This is a “Love Letters”type of play but not about just the romantic friendship/love between two people, but the very rich and needed relationships that exist outside of the family between friends. Through happy times, friends are there. When you fall through holes into wells of confusion or despair, friends are pulling the rope the hardest to get you out and up and going.

Like “Love Letters,” if you have beloved actors in the roles, there’s an instant connection that occurs that the play benefits from. In this case, the actors are Didi Conn as Peg (best known as Frenchy from the movie “Grease”), Adrian Zmed as her husband Tom (“TJ Hooker” and “Grease 2″), Cindy as Dotty Williams (best known as Shirley in “Laverne and Shirley”) and Donny Most as her husband Don (best known as Ralph from “Happy Days”).

Like “Love Letters,” the “play’s the thing,” as Shakespeare might say. The show has four podiums downstage where the actors stand with scripts before them. They may occasionally stray from stand to stand but, for all intents and purposes, this is just the actor telling you their stories with no blocking. This only works if the stories are worth telling and the actors are good enough to tell them. And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” If you were charmed by “Love Letters,” get ready for “Middletown,” as it makes you smile and sometimes cry over how rich and beautiful a good friendship can be.

Didi Conn ((Photo: Ira Kuzma)

The lynchpin of the play is Peg (Didi Conn). At this point, Peg is 82, and before beginning the tale, she mentions that at her age she may forget, and that she and her friends have some notes on stage to help them remember. She tells us “It’s a play about remembering.” And, of course, she means it more in the sense of not where you put your keys, but where you have put your heart.

She remembers back over 40-plus years to when she dropped off her daughter, Kathleen, at kindergarten. She meets Dotty (Cindy Williams) there. Dotty consoles Peg, who is feeling abandonment issues over dropping off her daughter. This initial meeting evolves into seeing each other again, which develops into best friends for decades. They introduce their husbands, and the husbands seem like an odd fit. Peg’s husband is Tom (Adrian Zmed), a poet who works at a bank and who Peg met at a bookstore. Dotty’s husband is blue collar who she met at a bar named Don (Donny Most).

And so the friendship begins.

What love/friendship may mean more than anything is commitment and the rollercoaster of shared vacations and shared New Year’s Eves s are seen, as well as the trying loss of a loved one, personal betrayal, dealing with cancer but coming out of all of this, knowing — absolutely knowig — you have a true friend. They will be there and so will you for them, through the good and the bad.

This is an ensemble show, but if there is a central character, it is Peg. Didi Conn is a revelation. Peg has many layers to her and, over the 95 minutes of this show, she shows an amazingly strong vulnerability which is the hallmark of Peg.

There is much for Peg to get upset about. There is much, at times, for her to laugh about and cry about. Conn is the type that you are afraid will break, whose quirky and endearing voice and manner has always made her kind of a glass unicorn in a glass menagerie.. But her Peg survives. Despite hurt, despite tears, Conn’s Peg survives. A truly incredible performance by the talented Didi Conn.

Adrian Zmed (Photo: Ira Kuzma)

Equally wonderful is the rest of the cast. Cindy Williams is hilarious recounting how she met her husband Don, and is heartbreaking at a later point when there is an intervention. Adrian Zmed is charming as Tom and vulnerable as his character goes through personal and physical difficulties. Donny Most as Don is the crusty one. He is Jewish and is quite funny with a “Fiddler on the Roof” moment.

The play ends with a Ralph Emerson quote on friendship. I will not repeat that particular Emerson quote. You should buy a ticket to find out which one it is. But here is one that was not mentioned: “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost work, but the solidest thing we know.”

Nothing could be truer. And, if you value your friends, go see this show and, with its familiar faces helping you, remember what friendship and life is all about. “Middletown” — you have just gotten a love letter from a friend.

The show runs through April 21, and tickets can be purchased online.

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