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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Linus Roache and Heather Burns.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Just because a little existentialist eccentricity is good does not mean that a lot is better. What distinguished Will Eno's darkly sparkling Thom Pain (based on nothing), when it played Off-Broadway in 2005, was that its happily quirky language and off-center sensibility sharply defined one man's sadly quirky and off-center life. But what do you get when you take the personality of one man as divulged over the course of one hour and divide it among 12 performers playing 25 characters over the course of more than two hours? You get the unbearable theatrical implosion Eno is calling Middletown, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre.

With this play, which Ken Rus Schmoll has directed with an irritating smugness, Eno is trying to show that the character (or lack thereof) of a place has the habit of rubbing off on the people that live there. In the case of the title burgh, which is located in an unspecified state in some unspecified (but obviously backward) part of the country, that means that its inhabitants are just as useless, formless, and decentralized as their home. Their confusion in matters of life, the universe, and pretty much everything else shows up in the way they conduct every single one of their affairs, whether returning library books, giving tours to even more yokel-like visitors, or dying and giving birth in a hospital, and are presented as though the mere quote-unquote fact of their existence conveys a certain charming profundity.

It does—in Our Town. But whereas Thornton Wilder envisioned and constructed his jewel-like play to draw additional cosmic significance from the barest facts of life, for Eno the insinuations and the insults are their own reward. The first two scenes feature a public speaker so cowed by the very notion of political correctness that he spends most of five minutes rattling off in his preamble every human trait he can think of so as to not offend anyone by omission; and a cop accosts and then assaults a mechanic because—uh, well, that's what crazy small-town lawmen do, I suppose. The script's brief flirtations with romance and tragedy go nowhere because these are not people who have any recognizable feelings to stroke or shatter. And even when they temporarily soar above the Earth in the space shuttle (the pilot is from Middletown), things are all on one chaotic, barely comprehensible downhill course from first moment to last.

The cast includes some heavyweight names (David Garrison, Michael Park, Georgia Engel, Johanna Day) and a host of other talented but less instantly recognizable performers. All are roundly misused and abused by Eno and Schmoll, who insist they approach every line of every role with dripping, cloying condescension that's grown ancient long before we meet all the characters. (That they all tread like porcelain dolls around David Zinn's playset-like town square set doesn't help them reassert their humanity.) And even after we've been exposed to a sweeping cross-section of these folks, there's still a pervasive pointlessness to every word, action, and presence. By the time the local do-everything man, John Dodge (Linus Roache), is reduced to speaking in intentionally unintelligible mumbles while fixing the plumbing of Mrs. Swanson (Heather Burns) the battle is long since lost—and that takes place near the middle of the first act.

What Eno doesn't do here that he did with Thom Pain is justify all this strangeness as part of a single psyche. In the earlier play, a perpetual loser examining his soul for the first time was captivating because his cobbled-together ramblings represented an attitude and voice we all have in our heads but know better than to actually unleash upon the world. Middletown shows exactly why we don't: When everyone speaks in the dissembling and disconnected thoughts that constitute their ongoing interior monologues, you get mostly a lot of nothing—none of which is worth listening to.

Through November 21
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule at

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