In the Theatre Row complex, the KEEN Company is presenting the first-ever New York revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. It was originally billed as a comedy, I guess to assure audiences that the ending isn’t a downer (that would make it a comedy in its most academic, classic sense, but I don’t think comedy as a potentially low-laugh designation has been colloquially valid for centuries), but it’s really another one of the author’s examination of the quiet desperation of lonely people. In this case, the two in front-and-center focus are a 26-year-old woman (Nicole Lowrence) who wants to leave an oppressive marriage to a man who barely speaks to her except for admittedly good sex, which no longer substitutes for emotional contact; and a middle aged widower (Jonathan Hadary) who prefers the ache of loneliness to fix-ups with depressingly desperate women of his own age and merely-physical relationships with women he can’t bring himself to love. It’s not hard for them to find each other: she’s a secretary who works for his company, and one day he shows up at her mother’s apartment (where she is taking refuge from hubby) to pick up some receipts she was holding from the office…and they start talking, really talking, making a connection they never planned to make…and thus begins the May-December romance that must fight to survive despite flummoxed and disapproving families.
In the harsher light of not-quite-60 years after its debut, Middle of the Night is far tamer fare than it might have seemed in the 50s (first on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands; then on television with E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint; finally on film with Frederic March and Kim Novak) but it’s far more candid and psychologically enlightened than you might expect for its era; and the dialogue, while rarely overtly clever, has the soft wit of well-observed authenticity.
The direction by Jonathan Silverman is decent but tonally inconsistent, veering from the verité of nuanced human behavior to the broader strokes of archetype, but much of that has to do with a (budget-minded?) double casting scheme. Except for the two leads, who are pitch-perfect, their respective families-and-friends are played by the same actors. They’re unable to differentiate without asserting some kind of stark contrast, they’re usually better suited to one role than the other, and in a naturalistic setting it draws attention to itself more than it works.
Still, near-miraculously, his regard for the material is such that the play somehow survives the unsubtle misstep, and Mr. Chayesfsky is well, if not brilliantly, served.
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