In a midtown rehearsal studio, Georgia Engel and James McMenamin are going over (and over) a scene from Middletown, Will Eno's first full-length play to hit New York since the existential monodrama Thom Pain (based on nothing) became an Off Broadway sensation nearly six years ago. Typical of Eno, the scene is packed with language that can tickle or caress one moment and punch sharply at the gut the next, and it's challenging to perform. Director Ken Rus Schmoll offers feedback, then turns to the 45-year-old playwright, who's been leaning his wiry body back in his chair, squeezing a tennis ball. Eno explains the impulses behind one of a character's numerous pauses, and subtle changes are apparent when they go through the scene again.
Eno intimately knows the people who populate Middletown, starting previews Wednesday 13 at the Vineyard Theatre. He's been working on the piece since 2002, when it was a very different beast with a dysfunctional Greek chorus. "You couldn't really hear what they were saying and they didn't say the same thing," explains Eno, whose voice tends to trail off into a whisper in conversation. He put down the play and picked it up again five years ago, but still had problems. "I had a very simple idea," he reflects, "and I think, through cowardice, I kept not seeing that through. I wanted a birth and a death and some allusion to the middle." Schmoll remembers feeling "emotionally devastated by it on the first read. It's both mysterious and accessible, and there's just no consensus to what the play's about, or what should have the most emotional impact. Ultimately, it's about something so human: the question of what does it mean to be a person."
As Eno traces the relationship between village newcomer Mary Swanson (Heather Burns) and longtime resident John Dodge (Linus Roache), lonely neighbors who find solace in each other's company, surprising emotional candor lurks behind seemingly ordinary scenarios, along with more sumptuous Eno angst. ("I read articles about identity theft and I actually get a little jealous, you know? 'Just take it. Good luck, fella.'") But there are also dollops of hope and wonder at life's miracles or, as the author puts it, "a lot more acceptance of things as they are."
The youngest of three children, Eno grew up in suburban Boston, the son of a lawyer father and a mother who was a volunteer activist (and arrested with Ed Asner once). After leaving high school early, Eno trained as a cyclist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, winning a silver medal in the national championships. Then a job painting houses steered him in another direction: "The guy I worked for was really into John Donne, and he always played audiobooks while we worked, so I started moving toward this other life."
In that life, he studied writing with noted editor Gordon Lish and found a champion in Edward Albee when he was a fellow at the playwright's namesake foundation. At the time, Eno was just beginning to work on plays after writing fiction. He didn't start going to the theater until his late twenties, and when he talks about its allure, he doesn't describe a memorable production but the experience itself. "With phones ringing and people coughing, you're just somehow aware of the humanness," he says. "There's something triumphantly mortal about the whole thing."
Middletown, which has been compared to Our Town, could catapult Eno to new playwriting heights. He certainly hasn't been overexposed: This is his first production by a major Off Broadway theater, and he juggles more than 20 characters and a cast of 12—enough actors to populate two or three of his previous works. Recently, Middletown received the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play. But the accolade that still tails him wherever he goes is New York Times critic Charles Isherwood's dubbing him "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation" in his review of Thom Pain, which became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. That piece of journalistic flash led to an 11-month run for Thom Pain, even if the Times review left some attendees puzzled by the play's absurdist oddities.
"I continue to be amazed and bewildered and grateful to be connected with Beckett in any sort of a sentence," says Eno, who also counts Don DeLillo as an influence. "Is it a burden? I'm sort of saved by being naturally just a little out of it in general. What by all rights should be occurring to me as a burden doesn't. I've got laundry to do tonight, and the place closes at nine—whether or not I'm the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation."
Middletown starts previews Wed 13 at the Vineyard Theatre.