The Year of Magical Thinking and Middletown: Baby Boomer Theater?

“I was in denial, I knew it was all a mistake, Kathleen would be calling any minute,” Sandy Duncan as Peg says about her daughter, killed during 9/11 in “Middletown,” a play by Dan Clancy.

“Of course I knew he was dead,” Kathleen Chalfant as Joan Didion says about her husband John Gregroy Dunne in Didion’s solo play The Year of Magical Thinking,  “Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that whatever had happened remained open to revision.”

I happened to see these two productions online one after the other, and I was struck by what they had in common. Some might get offended by even comparing Didion’s literate endeavor, which debuted on Broadway in 2007 starring Vanessa Redgrave in a role for which she was nominated for a Tony, with Clancy’s touring middlebrow entertainment, which began in Las Vegas in 2019 and features four actors best known for their TV roles in the 1970s and 80s. But there’s enough in these two streaming plays to make a case for something of a theatrical genre.

 Middletown

The four actors of “Middletown” press the flesh with a distinctly elderly audience on their cheery way to the stage of the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theater at Marietta, Georgia. This was the fourth stop on the show’s tour; the pandemic shut it down during the fifth stop, in Chicago. The producers, GFour Productions, recorded the production in Marietta on February 19, 2020, and are streaming it on the Overture platform for $25 through April 4.  

On stage, they behave congenially, establishing a sense of camaraderie and telling some jokes, mostly about being old. One joshes about being a centerfold for the AARP. Another says: “I’m in the stage of my life when I’m not sure if I forgot something, or I never learned it.

It takes a few moments before, as they read the script in front of music stands, the characters they are playing come into focus – two married couples who are long-time best friends.

Peg and Tom are portrayed by Sandy Duncan and Adrian Zmed (she a seven-time Broadway veteran, best known for Peter Pan and the TV series The Hogan family; he a four-time Broadway veteran, best known for Grease and as Officer Vince Romano in the T.J. Hooker television series.) The two met, they tell us, in a book store, and then they reenact a few lines of dialogue from that meeting to show how instantly compatible they were:

“I love to be read to.”

“I love to read aloud.”

Dotty and Don are portrayed by Didi Conn (a three-time Broadway veteran between known for her role as the beauty school dropout Frenchy in the films Grease and Grease 2) and Donny Most (who performed in Grease on Broadway and is best known as Ralph Malph from Happy Days) 

Over the course of the 90-minute play, the four characters reenact the ups and downs, the laughs and cries, of their relationships and their lives over many decades – a sort of Life’s Greatest Hits at 78 rpm (to use a boomer reference.) To give a sense of the odd  pacing:

In one scene, Peg confronts Tom about having an affair. She’s angry; he’s upset. After a couple of minutes of this, Tom says: “It took us time, a lot of time, for us to mend, but the stars will always be there.”

This is followed immediately by a scene where Dotty asks Don whether she should have “my neck done.”

 “I like connecting with a real neck,” Don answers. “I’m too old to start with a new one.”

And then immediately after that, Peg and Tom, having just come back from a doctor’s appointment (apparently years after the confrontation over the affair), talk about his diagnosis of prostate cancer, and how he feels it’s “unfair” to her, because it’ll make him impotent.

And so it goes, speed-reading through menopause, midlife crisis, a gay son, empty-nest syndrome, Alzheimers, loneliness, death and grief and more death. And, yes, that includes some rushed scenes involving September 11. There are no other references I noticed to specific historical events, which did not feel as exploitative as it might have,  because all the serious scenes were treated with more or less the same abrupt intensity.  To put this more positively, the performances  were good enough to create some arresting moments – one might call them relatable, especially if you’re of a certain age — even if these moments didn’t last long.

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Keen Theater Company presented its benefit reading of “The Year of Magical Thinking” on Saturday, March 13. (It is still streaming on its website through March 17 for those who purchased it on Saturday, but is no longer available for a new purchase.)

The play is an adaptation of two of Joan Didion’s non-fiction books, primarily “The Year of Magical Thinking,” published in 2005, which focused on the year 2003, when her husband John Gregory Dunne died, and her daughter Quintana Roo fell seriously ill.  Just as that book went to print, her daughter died, and she wrote about that in a 2011 memoir, “Blue Nights.”

I can’t say that any production on stage or screen of this adaptation would have the same nuanced power of what’s on the page – all those single-sentence paragraphs, those spaces. But Kathleen Chalfant  is exquisite in everything I have ever seen her in (“Wit!,” “Angels in America,” and shortly before the shutdown “Novenas for a Lost Hospital,”) and she was exquisite here. She sits in what looks to be her apartment, and looks to be reading from Joan Didion’s first book (although the two are not precisely the same texts, so this is a decision of the production.)  Like “Middletown,” the monologue of Magical Thinking is 90 minutes long. Unlike “Middletown,” it’s supremely focused (even the camera is focused…on Chalfant’s face. There are rarely any close-ups in “Middletown.” Didion’s play offers the particulars of her year dealing with her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness; it does linger, on funeral arrangements and hospital visits and her convoluted, elegantly expressed thought processes, much of which can be summed up as denial.  And it is particular to Joan Didion’s life – reminiscences of the life of a celebrated writer of articles, essays books and movies, which can feel a bit…privileged, if not precious. (“In the hall outside the bedroom there is a photograph of John and me taken on a location for The Panic in Needle Park. It was our first picture. We went with it to the Cannes Festival.” ) 

But she begins – the very first words of the play:

“This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. 

“And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. 

“That’s what I’m here to tell you.”

It’s easy to remember Joan Didion was, if not a voice of her generation, then a well-attended observer of the generation that came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s – roughly the same generation as the characters (and the actors) in “Middletown.”

And in this way – and in the moments of silence when Chalfant looks at us with shades of complex feeling – that I saw a connection between the two plays — how they are speaking, or trying to speak, or inadvertently relatable, to a generation that has lived through a certain collective history, and is living through aging, and loss, and grief. 

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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