Will Eno seems determined to subdue his minimalist impulses in “Middletown,” a provocative but egregiously overwritten piece about life and death and the monumental struggle to get through the day without killing yourself. Something of a postmodern cut-and-paste job on “Our Town,” this surreal fantasy of daily life in a small town allows residents to step out from behind their ordinary persona and assert their individuality in the eccentric idiom that the scribe perfected in Off Broadway hit “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing).” A fine idea, if only Eno hadn’t focused his play on the two dullest citizens in town.
Eno’s inventive mind initially reveals itself in the witty prologue delivered by a cheery Speaker (David Garrison) who specifically welcomes and figuratively embraces each and every person — from “stockbrokers and dockworkers” to “ghosts and ghouls” — into the universal family of man.
The scribe’s imagination doesn’t flag as he proceeds to introduce a cross-section of the local citizenry that includes a tough cop (Michael Park); a hard-drinking mechanic (James McMenamin); an eagle-eyed librarian (Georgia Engel); a dreamy tour guide (McKenna Kerrigan) and a couple of tourists (a couple of gem perfs from Ed Jewett and Cindy Cheung) who aren’t overly impressed with the town’s modest attractions.
Although everyone appears to conform to type, that impression doesn’t last long. The cop, for one, is so determined that “everything is as everything seems” that he chokes the misfit mechanic for his refusal to “be a good human.”
Engel makes a particularly enchanting oddball of the librarian, who says whatever truthfully outrageous thought pops into her head. “Good for you, dear,” she tells a new resident who has applied for a library card. “I think a lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die, anyway.'”
Cutting up the components of the English language like so many pieces of Christmas fruitcake (as characters are wont to do in Eno’s plays), the residents of Middletown find entirely original ways to express what appears to be a common obsession: they are all looking for ways to find meaning and satisfaction in those daily rituals we call life.
Under the savvy helming of downtown regular Ken Rus Schmoll, the cast is 100% at ease spouting Eno’s sweetly insane dialog. But it makes sense that one of the play’s most life-affirming actions is performed by McMenamin’s troubled mechanic, the playwright-stand-in who once admitted: “All I see is stupid shaky sad stuff and dark skies and sharp corners.”
The problem with the play is the fat spare tire it wears around its middle — a series of intimate scenes between Mrs. Swanson (Heather Burns), a neglected wife who desperately wants a child, and her next-door neighbor, John Dodge (Linus Roache), who is a classic depressive.
It’s clear from David Zinn’s stripped-down set and Tyler Micoleau’s cool lighting design — a handsome pair of oversized block houses, surrounded by a lot of infinitely empty space — that these two sad sacks are Middletown’s two loneliest residents. Unfortunately, they are also the least articulate, and their uninspired wordplay is all-too accurate an idiom for their conventional yearnings.