Sunday, December 5, 2010

Down the Middle

altRoache and Burns in Middletown (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Written by Will Eno

Directed by Ken Rus Schmol
Starring Johanna Day, David Garrison, Linus Roache, Heather Burns, Georgia Engel, Michael Park, James McMenamin, Cindy Cheung, Ed Jewett, McKenna Kerrigan, Olivia Scott, Pete Simpson

Performances through December 5, 2010
Vineyard Theatre, 100 East 15th Street

Will Eno's Middletown is not only no Our Town, which it aspires to: it's not even Urinetown. A series of skits masquerading as a full-length play, Middletown tries to be witty and insightful, but ends up middlebrow and middle of the road instead.

Set in bucolic small-town America, Middletown follows several people who are less Thornton Wilder archetypes than Eno stereotypes: there's a neighborhood cop who's obnoxious and arrogant for no apparent reason; a depressed middle-aged man, John Dodge, who strikes up a friendship with his new next-door neighbor, Mrs. Swanson, a friendly and innocently flirty younger woman; a sweet librarian nearing retirement age; and a shabbily-dressed mechanic who's always harassed by the policeman.

Eno has written Middletown in a deliberately vague way with no topical references, apparently to emphasize “universality”—only Dodge and Swanson have names. Instead of being timeless, however, the sophomoric humor emphasizes its pointlessness: indeed, the short scenes could be rearranged without damaging—or improving—the whole.

Right from its opening monologue, Eno's dialogue is arch and unfunny, with would-be epigrams and one-liners usually landing with a thud. One sketch of audience members who are watching Middletown discussing the play at intermission is placed right before the actual intermission; this self-reflexiveness is greeted by the audience as if it was an intelligent comment on today's theatergoers, which it may well be. There's also a dumb doctor who confuses his patients, thinking he's speaking with Mrs. Swenson when it's actually Mrs. Swanson, which is more a simpleminded idea than a satirical one.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll decently puts his talented cast through its paces, but he's unable to fashion a cohesive whole out of such scattershot meanderings. Heather Burns is always a beguiling stage presence, but she has little to play with as Mrs. Swanson; likewise Linus Roache, who always suggests a more intelligent Dodge than Eno has written. It's true that Georgia Engel—best-known as the ditzy Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—gets laughs every time she opens her mouth, but that's due more to her distinctively breathy voice than what she's saying.

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