I’m old enough to have attended at least one reunion for my high school class, though we had it on an "off" year -- perhaps an 11th anniversary outing was indicative of our slacker 1990s roots. The event wasn't particularly traumatic for me, or even that disorienting, perhaps in part because the class reunion is no longer such a mystery box in the age of Facebook and other social media.
It’s because of this phenomenon that “The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion” — whose subject matter you can rightly guess from the title — sets its action in 2004, when attendees of a 50th high school reunion would be catching the first glimpses in decades of most of their former classmates.
The world premiere of Alan Brody's play is now onstage at Central Square Theater. Brody wrote the four-hander while on sabbatical from professorial duties at MIT. The show is presented by Nora Theatre Company, though it features the leading lights of both the Nora and Underground Railway Theater. Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner directs her counterpart at Underground Railway, Debra Wise, who co-stars along with Emmy Award-winner Gordon Clapp.
The result is thoroughly charming, with lots of good work to admire. The material might benefit by fully committing to being frothy entertainment, rather than feinting toward something more complex, as it does. But it’s indeed pleasant.
Steven Royal’s scenic design evokes the proper setting instantly as you enter the theater. It’s divided with seating on either end of a rectangular space filled with the round tables (with balloon centerpieces) and chairs spruced up with gold-colored cloth that we might expect at an event like a wedding or high school reunion. Some audience members are seated at these eight tables, getting a stage-level view of things.
Wise and Clapp play Bettina and Tom, two people who each attended the event alone and meet for the first time despite having been high school classmates. She’s a neuroscientist and a widow; he’s a divorcee who’s owned a bookstore for 40 years. He’s a lifelong wallflower, content to keep his head down and stay unnoticed. She’s clawed out an admirable career as a research scientist, in a field dominated by men who are quick to dismiss her.
There are some fascinating nuggets hidden within these characters, lovingly revealed by two actors working at a high level. Tom seems confused that a person can love more than one thing in life. Bettina, too, has trouble feeling the spark of real feeling for her family members, reserving her passion for her work.
Wise draws a compelling arc — two, really. We see her character change across the flashbacks as well as over the course of one evening surrounded by forgotten faces. Clapp, who won that Emmy for his work on “NYPD Blue” and also has a Tony Award nomination on his resume, creates a very distinctive character; we see Tom’s reticence to engage, but Clapp is given the tougher task of selling a few moments that seem a bit out of tune with what we’ve learned about the character.
Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Matthew Zahnzinger play smaller but essential roles as various people from Bettina and Tom’s pasts; Bedard is particularly impressive as a love-struck bookstore employee and a coquettish teen.
There’s some interesting talk about the functioning of the brain and the nature of memory, but it’s mainly window dressing — something for the two principal characters to chat about. The flashbacks don’t challenge their present-tense recollection of events and the implications of variable memory are not really explored.
All the brain talk ends up making “Midvale” feel of a piece with the works Central Square Theater presents under the aegis of its Catalyst Collaborative with MIT, which supports plays with science-related themes. But unlike, say, this season’s “Paradise,” the science content here doesn’t converse in a vital way with the play’s concerns. Bettina and Tom could have just as well bonded over talk of golf.
Gardner exerts a steady hand, maintaining a sense of forward momentum which I could imagine lagging at times in a less polished production of the material. The flashbacks are handled admirably as well.
All in all, it's a reunion worth attending.