This marvelous Keen Company revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night (1954) gives us the gift of seeing how the work should be done. Middle of the Night was staged by Joshua Logan at the ANTA Theatre in 1956. The original cast included Gena Rowlands as The Girl (Betty) and Edward G. Robinson as The Manufacturer (Jerry). Keen Company’s mission statement attributes its inspiration to the works of early 20th Century American playwrights. Kudos to Jonathan Silverstein, Keen Artistic Director and director of this fine production, for reintroducing us to a lesser known Chayefsky work than Marty, The Tenth Man, and his 1977 Oscar winning screenplay Network.
The loneliness of the middle aged man moving through life on auto pilot, then exploding into risky, life altering action, is a theme explored by Chayefsky in Marty and Network. In Middle of the Night, Jerry “The Manufacturer” (Jonathan Hadary), co-owner of a garment firm, lost his wife over a year ago. His eldest sibling Evelyn “The Sister” (Denise Lute) has moved in with him to direct operations at Jerry’s wifeless Upper West Side apartment. Fussing over Jerry, too, is Lillian “The Daughter” (Melissa Miller), young wife and new mother from New Rochelle. Lillian’s meddling in her father’s life practically torpedoes her own marriage. I was taken aback when she asks her father how well his sex life is going.
Despite Evelyn’s nearly incestuous attachment to her younger brother, she is hell bent on fixing Jerry up with Mrs. Nieman “The Widow” (Amelia Campbell) whose husband’s dead body is still warm. Ah, the Fifties. A widow could barely survive six months alone before she and her girlfriends launch the hunt for the next husband. Mrs. Nieman tries to hook Jerry with a vigorous game of Jewish geography. But Jerry will have none of his sister’s matchmaking, though he tried a hooker and a buyer from Lord & Taylor. He talks like an old man, weary with mental fatigue and physical pain. In contemporary context, he surprises when he mentions he is fifty-three. No gym work-out in those days. Today fifty-three really is the new thirty-three.
The play opens on the working class apartment of “The Girl” Betty’s (Nicole Lowrance) mother. Betty is the twenty-four year old receptionist at Jerry’s office. She is distraught over inattentive George “The Husband” (Todd Bartels), a musician constantly on the road, and when he is home, he never listens to her. She runs to her mother’s, calls in sick at work, and begs “The Mother” (Amelia Campbell) to go in late to her job at Cushman’s so she can vent about getting a divorce. Since Betty’s father ran out on them when she was six, her mother has been occupied with “The Kid Sister” (Alyssa May Gold) and is guilt ridden for neglecting Betty during her formative years. A needy woman-child, Betty is ripe for a May-December romance.
That same day, Jerry needs some sales slips Betty took home with her. Instead of sending a messenger, he drops by her mother’s West Side apartment. Instinctively sensing Jerry’s kindness, Betty bursts into tears. She spills her guts to him while he patiently listens. Great craftsmen say that great acting is all about listening. Mr. Hadary’s face is beautiful and wonderous, as he watches and discovers Betty. It is brilliant acting.
A quick afternoon errand turns into an invitation to dinner. Thus a new kind of love for Betty and Jerry begins on this day. After three months of dinners and walks, Jerry is so respectful and terrified of making love to Betty that she has to proposition him. Their first sex together isn’t bells and banjos, but Betty is a smart girl and far from shallow. She appreciates this sweet, caring man who comes to deeply love her. Betty is an unexpected miracle in Jerry’s fading life. Their love changes him. He likes winter now and walks without galoshes.
Apart from Mr. Hadary, Ms. Lowrance, and Ms. Gold, the actors play dual roles, transforming their social class. This can be tricky, suspend believability, but Jonathan Silverstein’s handsome direction gives them not only a costume change but different body language for each character. Ms. Campbell as “The Mother” is working class, slightly worn with a lid on her speech and movement. As “The Widow”, she is the effervescent Yente. Ms. Lute as “The Sister” is take charge, energetic. Moving from middle to lower class as “The Neighbor”, she is elderly and sedentary with her rolled down stockings. Ms. Miller’s portrayal of “The Daughter” has a matronly gait in her Fifties lady dresses, though she is in her mid-twenties. As “The Girlfriend” of Betty, she is feisty. Mr. Bartels has the daunting task of playing Jerry’s “The Son-in-Law” back to back with George “The Husband”. More than merely removing his eyeglasses, he subtly shifts his energy from henpecked (he rebels) suburban husband to lustful musician.
In a seamless, shaded performance, Nicole Lowrance as “The Girl” stays away from stereotype. She isn’t the dumb working class girl, nor is she naïve. She has a head on her shoulders and a heart that has learned what it wants. Paddy Chayefsky knew how to write multi-dimensional characters, fleshed out in this production with director Jonathan Silverstein’s subtle touch.
The crown jewel of the production is Jonathan Hadary in the final scene of Act Three. When Betty’s husband George hears she wants a divorce, he suddenly returns home from his gig and attempts seduction to win her back. Betty phones Jerry and leaves a message with Evelyn. When he calls her back, she tells Jerry about George’s homecoming and insists on seeing him immediately, though it is the middle of the night. Mr. Hadary is breathtaking and will tug your heartstrings as he awaits Betty at his apartment, anticipating her ending their affair. Over his underlying heartbreak, he verbalizes every justification why they shouldn’t be together. “I’ll always think of this girl as one of the sweetest things in my life. But it was candy. You can’t build a permanent life on candy,” he tries to convince himself as he prepares for doom, desperately playing against his true feelings.
The set also plays dual roles. The opening scene is in Betty’s mother’s living room. With the scene change to Jerry’s living room, not a piece of furniture is moved. It took me a moment to realize we were in a different place. The scene transformation is cleverly made with one chandelier. When we leave Betty and her family to go to Jerry’s family, the chandelier drops down, and the lighting is brought up. When we go back to Betty’s family, the chandelier is raised.
Director Jonathan Silverstein intimately knows his social landscape as well as Paddy Chayefsky did. Chayefsky’s Fifties isn’t the Doris Day virginal version. Both families object more to the couple’s difference in age than religion. The smoking on stage may irritate your throat, but you will smile fondly at some of the Fifties references. Jerry’s garment factory is in Brooklyn. His rent on the Upper West Side is $310.
Middle of the Night
By Paddy Chayefsky; directed by Jonathan Silverstein; sets by Steven C. Kemp; costumes by Jennifer Paar; lighting by Jonathan Spencer; sound by Obadiah Eaves; props by Ricola Wille; general manager, Lico Whitfield; production stage manager, Rhonda Picou; press representatives, David Gersten & Associates; casting by Calleri Casting. Presented by Keen Company, Jonathan Silverstein, artistic director. At the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. (800) 901-4092. Through March 29. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Nicole Lowrance (The Girl), Amelia Campbell (The Mother, The Widow), Alyssa May Gold (The Kid Sister), Jonathan Hadary (The Manufacturer), Denise Lute (The Sister, The Neighbor), Melissa Miller (The Daughter, The Girlfriend), Todd Bartels (The Husband, The Son-In-Law).