Mystery Theater

two takes on mystery: middletown @ steppenwolf & chinglish @ the goodman.

Two recent plays in Chicago suggested that in theater, there are many paths to mystery, and that sometimes the most mysterious are the least.

Will Eno’s Middletown, at Steppenwolf, tried very hard to be profound. In moments it was, as in the free-associative rants of a policeman, played by Danny McCarthy, and a wheelchair-bound and drug-addicted man played by Michael Patrick Thornton. Assigned to play Indian for sick kids at a hospital, Thornton turned his character’s fake shaman chants into something darker and more powerful. But the trying at mystery often got in the way of its appearance. The play’s closing scene, which featured a baby coming into the world as an old man died, reeked of significance. Trying to summon mystery in the middle of Middletown turned out to propose that there was a reason why it was middling. The miraculous, so desired, came to seem banal.

James Waterston as Daniel Cavanaugh in Chinglish.

David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, by contrast, was so breezy that you could miss its profound take on the mysteries of intercultural experience. Because Chinglish used dramatic irony, letting the audience understand what the characters themselves could not quite translate equivalently between English and Chinese, it left a viewer wonderfully off-balance. Teetering on the thin beams of mistranslation, a viewer was able to make sense of the bottomless gaps between cultures but was glimpsed (and more importantly heard) the bolting together of new edifices in and around confounding social interactions.

Rather than the conventional use of dramatic irony in Chinglish, deployed inventively to probe the moment in which languages and cultures intersected, Middletown adopted a tactic more like ironic drama, in which the goal was to confuse the audience members with a flurry of seemingly disconnected and random observations strung together into shiny, poetic monologues. The confusion that resulted was intriguing, evoking a kind of deadpan surrealism that skimmed the surfaces of everyday life to emphasize their dazzling strangeness. This was fine stuff, except for the feeling that the play longed to go deeper, to get to the heart of the middle of the matter. It couldn’t let go of the dream of mystery where you least expect it. At the end, Tracy Letts tried to wheeze the play to life, but his sad old man had nowhere to go but into silence.

In Chinglish, by contrast, there was life, not death. There were words and more words and still more words. Words in English and words in Chinese and words in between. This play had no interest in silence and eternity, only the endless tumult of history.  It zipped along before resolving into an inevitable comic order tinged with predictable irony. The end was manufactured happiness, but the end wasn’t the point, the point was the process. And the process suggested that below the easy, flowing humor there was a nagging sense that we now live in a gleaming modern office tower of babel. It teems and seethes with signs. Not just the badly-translated information hanging from walls that the main character, an American, sought to correct by selling new ones to government officials building an arts center in provincial China, but also signs in general—the labels that tell us what’s what.

Gently unloosed from stable meanings in Chinglish, directing the actors toward misdirection, the signs in the play seemed like lotus petals reshaped into arrows, relentlessly pointing out the way toward the mysteries they never entirely disclosed.


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