Will Eno's latest play is about the small stuff: birth, life, death—those trivialities that mark our boring stint on this overgrown ball of dirt and ditch water. What's that? You don't believe that living and dying are banal interchangeables? Just spend a couple of hours wandering around Middletown—the village or the philosophical comedy-drama—and you may find yourself heaving one Beckettian sigh after another.
And yet! Those exhalations will not be mere despair; Eno's haunting tragicomedy is sprinkled with tiny but deeply satisfying comic explosions and grace notes of hope—or at least, endurance. The author can twist a bit of quotidian speech and find its dark pith, the angst-ridden double entendre or inadvertent admission of futility. Middletown's unfailingly sweet librarian (Georgia Engel) learns that town newcomer Mary Swanson (Heather Burns) has been trying to conceive a child with her (unseen) husband. "Something you both can work on," the librarian notes. "Good for you. The world needs another person." The line gets a nervous laugh, because Eno helps us hear the shadow line, in all its bitter irony, while leaving room for the non-Malthusians out there to savor the speaker's frank optimism.
More than Eno's acidic, audience-baiting monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), Middletown gives off glimmers of humanist light through the existential gloom. Mary has the closest thing to a romance anyone has in Enoland: She shares finger sandwiches with her depressed neighbor, John Dodge (Linus Roache), as they haltingly confide hopes and fears. Later, Mary becomes pregnant, John descends into morbid paralysis, and they both visit the hospital for starkly different reasons.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll maintains the perfect tone, a deadpan earnestness with menace in the aftertaste. (You may mentally cross-reference Our Town and Blue Velvet seconds apart.) The cast is inspired, especially David Garrison as a harried but ultimately considerate obstetrician, and James McMenamin as a shabby young drifter who muses: "If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer." We can squirm, or laugh, or want to hug this lost soul; Eno's dark, comic genius inspires all.
Vineyard Theatre. By Will Eno. Dir. Ken Rus Schmoll. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.