Middletown Mall is a marvelously bland name for a generic no-place middle-America shopping mall in the late ’90s. It is here that playwright Lava Alapai sets her scene and where Third Rail Repertory Theatre takes us for its final production of the 2023-24 season. While you may be initially drawn in by the energy of four 20-somethings, toiling in the wasteland of suburbia, the person we're really hear to talk about is Greg (Darius Pierce).

Music sets the show's time period—blasting Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”—as do other era landmarks, like phone phreaking, blue boxes, and MacGyver. 

Alapai’s script follows the intertwined relationships of four friends, who all work in the mall’s adjacent shops. Carly (Alex Ramirez de Cruz) works in a tiny bookstore; Willow (Kailey Rhodes) grinds espresso as a barista in a coffee shop. Ash (Treasure Lunan) and Bax (Emmanuel Davis) suffer in a corporate mall-quality Chinese food joint, beneath the thumb of their insufferable boss, Greg.

Alex Ramirez de Cruz as Carly - Photo by John Rudoff
Left to right: Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Emmanuel Davis, and Kailey Rhodes Photo by John Rudoff

The hope left to this well-balanced ensemble of characters lays in rehearsals for a national karaoke contest. If they win, the $25,000 prize promises freedom from their ridiculous martinet of a boss, their cramped lives, and the exhausting customers who occasionally show up. 

Their bonds fissure, as they must for the plot to progress. After a few dropped words from Greg about the future of the mall, we learn of the wounds and scar-tissue each character carries. A knee injury destroys a sports career. Cancer’s maw swallows a future. A phone call home brings no comfort. Even their wretched little life-preservers of coffee and books face absorption by corporations, like Starbucks and Amazon. Then finally, the long-hoped-for karaoke contest may be lost.

Treasure Lunan as Ash (no doubt pondering GREG) Photo by John Rudoff
Left to right: Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Darius Pierce (GREG!), Emmanuel Davis, and Kailey Rhodes - Photo by John Rudoff

In more ways than one, Greg—the imperious boss—is the linchpin of this drama, the most impactful and yet opaque character. He is monstrous, but monsters are predominantly made, not born. The merciless needling and sabotage that the ensemble subjects him to is partly-earned, partly gratuitous. 

Even as our Gen-X friends navigate trauma, affronts, and blind chance, Greg follows hotly at their heels ensuring as much misery as he can manage. Who / what made him this way?

Alapai must be seeking this answer herself, as she placed the character at the center of her work. She told the Mercury the play’s characters were inspired by the “cafeteria of friends [she] had growing up,” and she has obviously mined her “shelf of memories” with precision and respect. Middleton Mall is part of a trilogy, she continued, which will dig deeper into Greg and Ash. This work is the mid-section.

Even leaving aside the promise of future character development, this self-standing, well-crafted, but disturbing play merits your attention. It is a mature and thoughtful work by a skilled playwright.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre presents Middletown Mall at CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh, Thurs-Sun, through June 9, free-$45, tickets here, 85 minutes with no intermission.