The Middle Ages

Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, now playing at the Kirk Theatre, Theatre Row, off-off-Broadway.

Dramas in which we plunge into ongoing action intermittently are always rather interesting—not always effective (does life really work like that, vast periods of unimportance punctuated by a few sudden turning points?) but definitely interesting.* I enjoy piecing together context and elapsed time with each new scene, and the plotting is generally rather tight: after all, we only drop into a particular moment because something significant is happening.

Such structure also allows the story to cover a long period of time without needing to become epic. For example, in The Middle Ages, a play by A. R. Gurney, we spend time in just a single room, with only four characters, but span more than thirty years. I’m not quite convinced that the setting—the trophy room of a big-city men’s club—is truly so meaningful to the characters as to justify its being the site of so many critical moments in their lives, but I can set that aside. It’s an interesting conceit.

After a brief introduction in the 1970s, the play plunges us back in time to the mid-1940s, when Barney (Terry Small) and Eleanor (Marilee Talkington) are awkward young teenagers and his widowed father, Charles (George Ashiotis), and her divorced mother, Myra (Melanie Boland), are struggling to deal with their wayward children. The club is a refuge for Charles and a convenient ladder for the social-climbing Myra, but to Barney and Eleanor, it’s a problematic institution as well as the epicenter of their tumultuous relationship.

That relationship is the heart of the play, but it didn’t quite work for me. Despite her close bond with Barney, Eleanor eventually marries his younger, more dependable brother (whom he never meet). She stumbles along for years afterward, trying to convince herself that she and her brother-in-law are just friends, but doing so is difficult, largely because Barney often refuses to follow the just-friends script. He’s not a bad person, exactly, just an undisciplined, self-destructive one. At one point, he compares his feelings toward Eleanor to the medieval concept of courtly love—as if that’s good or romantic and not deeply, deeply dysfunctional.

I don’t think Gurney, the playwright, considers Barney’s “courtly love” for Eleanor to be romantic, but he does seem to hold out more hope for the couple than I can easily extend. The play appears to subscribe to Barney’s description of the medival period (the Middle Ages of the title) as a necessary time of preparation, with people readying themselves for the glories of the Renaissance, and I’m not sure I can buy Barney and Eleanor’s tortured separation as the Middle Ages before the Rennaissance of their reunion. If we’re meant to draw a larger metaphor, imagining the societal melee of the 1960s and ’70s as another “Middle Ages,” I’m even less likely to come along for the ride. The metaphor seems forced and discordant, as neither coming “Renaissance” (Barney and Eleanor finally tying their lives together and Ronald Reagan’s America) looks particularly promising.

Nonetheless I enjoyed the play, particularly Talkington’s performance as Eleanor. She is the strongest actor of the troupe (despite her unnerving resemblance to Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon), and to the extent I sympathize with Barney and Eleanor, I have her to thank. She beautifully portrays Eleanor’s uneasy meld of exasperation and affection, and because I myself find Barney exasperating, I need her to point me toward his good side. As for Small, he overplays Barney’s fitfulness, especially in the early scenes, when Barney doesn’t come across as sixteen so much as a hyperactive, possibly retarded little boy. But in quieter moments, Small finds real poignancy in Barney’s inability to find happiness. In those moments, I even kind of like the poor guy.

Similarly, the playwright (not to mention the constume designer) sometimes gets a bit overexcited about period cues (afros, leisure suits, and irrelevant asides about Angela Davis—it must be the 1970s!), but the time frame does do a good job of underlining the familial conflict between the parents’ traditions and their children’s desire for change. It’s been done, of course, but it’s a cliché because it’s so effective: Is there a better symbol of social upheaval than the 1960s? And besides, with a stone-skipping plot like this one, you need those familiar decade landmarks to situate each new scene.

– – – – –

*Personally, I classify this sort of structure as a Four Weddings and a Funeral plot, a term which makes up for its embarrassing lack of intellectualism (an old Hugh Grant movie? that’s really what I want to use as my archetype?) with its raw descriptive power: Virtually all the action in the movie takes place at, yes, four weddings and a funeral. Very tidy.