Written by Will Eno
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
“Here’s something from the Chamber of Commerce,” says the sweet, squirrelly librarian to the curious newcomer, “just to give you a general sense. ‘Middletown was built on the ruins of other older Middletowns, and, before them, a town called Middenton, which was named for being between two other places, both unknown and now incidentally gone.'” She pauses. “That doesn’t sound right: ‘incidentally gone.'” Oddly enough for a play in which we look voyeuristically into suburban living rooms and tourists come expressly to see the banalities of small-town Americana, sound is the essential thing in Will Eno’s excellent Middletown, having its premiere at the Vineyard (through December 5). Characters discuss the sounds heard by fetuses and how a corpse changes a room’s sonority; a landscaper (Pete Simpson) remarks that the word “rock” sounds old, “like a name the rocks would’ve picked out themselves”; the town cop (Michael Park) rambles mystically into his radio, “just to see if anyone’s listening.” “Someone’s listening,” crackles a female voice in response. Many of the Middletonians we meet, though, worry that nobody will listen when they really need to be heard.
The citizens populating this small-town magical realist fable are talkers looking for listeners. From the local tour guide (McKenna Kerrigan) to the disgruntled young mechanic Craig (James McMenamin) often found sipping brown-bagged bottles on public benches, every character has more to say than they initially realize. Eno’s writing always comes peppered with pauses, not awkward or empty but thoughtful, creating odd rhythms that director Ken Rus Schmoll and the sharp cast bring out superbly. What might read like non-sequiturs or absurd musings take on a local logic; for being simultaneously Anytown and Notown (and Waiting for Guffman’s Blaine, Missouri), Middletown is quite unique. We arrive not unlike newly moved-in Mary Swanson (Heather Burns, Leah on Bored to Death), perplexed but also charmed by the oddball townies. Left to make her new home by a traveling salesman husband whom we increasingly suspect doesn’t exist, she befriends her aloof neighbor John Dodge (Linus Roache)—their houses’ pitched roofs form a funnel-like shape at the center of David Zinn’s excellent set, an ever-present motif of middle-ness. A would-be romance between the pair seems likely as the first half draws to a close.
“They represent the future,” a woman remarks during “intermission,” a scene from the play that precedes the actual intermission, in which five characters sit facing the audience, discussing the first half. “Since you don’t know the end,” remarks another, “you’re not sure what you’re in the middle of.” This meta-theatrical interlude foreshadows a sharp change in tone, but also complicates our relationship to Middletown (and Middletown). No longer visitors in some quaint fiction, we become eavesdroppers listening in on another audience’s show. We’re suddenly a lot more like those sad, peculiar, but essentially good Middletonians, symbolically cut out of the bond between speaker and listener.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)