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A CurtainUp Review
Middle Of The Night
By Elyse Sommer
After all, we live in the age of Viagra when men much older than widower Jerry Kingsley are enjoying vigorous sex lives. Still the thirty year age difference between Kingsley and Betty Preisser, a clerk in the office of his garment factory is extreme. (The program's cast list identifies Jerry and Betty only as The Widower and The Girl, and this generic naming applies to the entire cast).
Despite the slim likelihood of a solid marriage for this mismatched pair, Chayefsky left Middle of the Night audiences with the impression that they would make a go of it. However, his focus really wasn't on the marriage but on the courtship: The corresponding sense of isolation and despair that makes the generation apart couple bond and the way it affects their families. Besides being a master matchmaker of lonely outsiders (shades of Marty about a Bronx butcher and schoolmarm spinster) Chayefsky was an expert at depicting the atmosphere and attitudes of ordinary New Yorkers. ,
Middle of the Night was also a Bronx tale, though during the time the play unfolds, Manhattan's upper West Side hadn't been gentrified yet so that there were plenty of apartments for working class New Yorkers on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues or between Broadway and West End Avenue. Since the original Philco Playhouse production ran just 60 minutes, the complications resulting from the attitudes of the various family members were added by Chayefsky for the play's move to Broadway's ANTA Playhouse. Making the romance more of a family drama further showcased Chayefsky's skill at probing into the landscape occupied by average people — their frustrations, yearnings, vulnerabilities and prejudices (Kinsley being a Jew is as upsetting to Betty's mother as his age). It also opened the play up to humor from the ripple effect on the various family relationships. It is the expanded version of the original teleplay, which also became a movie, Director Jonathan Silverstein has based the Keen Company's revival is based on the play.
But while this new Middle of the Night is dated in terms of its 1950's look and the attitudes and mores on display, the economic constraints for putting on a play these days turn out to be one of this production's biggest assets. Both the play and the movie featured a large cast of actors to play all the people affected by and affecting the courtship's ups and downs. The double casting everyone except the courting couple (Nicole Lowrance and Jonathan Hadary) often makes the shifts between the apartments of Betty's mother, Mrs. Mueller (Amelia Campbell), and the apartment Jerry shares with his sister Marilyn (Denise Lute) hilariously entertaining.
Amelia Campbell, an actress with of chameleon virtuosity is a riot in her quick change from Betty's hard working, pragmatic mother to a widow eager to become the second Mrs. Kingsley. Denise Lute, Melissa Miller and Alyssa May Gold are also fun to watch as they portray characters in both families, as is Todd Bartels navigating both the widowr's supportive son-in-law and Betty's self-absorbed, macho husband.
Economic considerations also dictate a single set to serve two different apartments. This too works to the advantage of the play's moving forward fluidly. Set designer Steven C. Kemp's scrim at the rear wall of the living room reveals a snowy exterior outside the Kingsley apartment on West End Avenue, while another door at the side of the stage serves as the entrance to the Mueller apartment probably in the less upscale part of the neighborhood.
As for the two main characters, Nicole Lowrance is perfection as the pretty befuddled and bewildered young woman whose marriage to a musician her own age hasn't worked out. It's okay physically but has exacerbated the sense of abandonment resulting from her father's desertion when she was a child and feeling more like a burden than a cherished daughter to her mother.
Jonathan Hadary is closer to social security age than fifty-three. But casting an actor who may seem a bit too old for the part works to show that before fifty-tree became the new thirty three, men in their fifties did look and feel older. At any rate Hadary brings an endearing warmth to the role, and a convincing blend of cautious awe and excitement at suddenly finding himself feeling fully alive again. And, unlike the movie's widower Frederic March, who was also well past fifty-three, he looks and sounds more like a Jewish New Yorker.
If Paddy Chayefsky were alive to see this production, he would approve the casting of an actor who was probably never the sort of man to attract knockout beauties like Nicole Lowrance. After all, it was his plainness that made the love starved Marty so memorable — and it's that same quality that ultimately makes us root for Hadary's Jerry to seize the moment.