MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, Stage Actors Ensemble of Chicago, at the Performance Loft. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1956 play is in many ways a middle-aged version of his brilliant 1953 teleplay Marty. Instead of a lonely, homely Catholic guy in his 20s struggling to break free of his controlling mother by dating a Protestant girl, however, we get a lonely widower struggling to break free of his controlling sister and dependent adult daughter by dating a younger woman.

Both plays emphasize the little things–quiet conversations, subtle mood swings, trivial arguments–that indicate major changes in the characters’ lives. But Middle of the Night has aged less well, mostly because the question at its center–whether it’s OK for a man in his 50s to court a woman in her early 20s–seems more complicated in this age of trophy wives and Woody Allen. Which may be why the Stage Actors Ensemble has tried to spice up the play with the additional controversy of interracial dating, a highly charged issue to be sure but entirely unsupported by Chayefsky’s script. The addition of a few lines doesn’t really solve the problem, especially since this production is still set in 1956.

More damaging, however, is the actors’ tendency to underplay their lines, speaking calmly when Chayefsky would have them shout, becoming peeved when he’d have them crying. Their restraint reduces a potentially charged psychodrama to a rather slow, mildly boring investigation of race and May-December marriages.

–Jack Helbig