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Another Half-Masterpiece
By Jonathan Kalb

By Will Eno
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St.
Box office: 212-353-0303

In a corner of my mental library is an imaginary shelf containing a group of dramas I call "half-masterpieces." These are plays whose second acts struck me as baffling disappointments at their premiere productions compared to the radiant originality and breathtaking imaginativeness of their first acts--not just minor letdowns, mind you, but utterly inexplicable failures of nerve, scope and technique compared with the astonishing resonance of what preceded them. Among the plays on this shelf (many the object of much unreserved acclaim) are Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross--and they are now joined by Middletown, Will Eno's first "full-evening-length" work.

Eno's is an interesting dramatic voice. His Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a remarkable debut in 2005, a 55-minute, utterly uningratiating, Beckettian monologue by an irascible yet intellectually playful and insatiably curious man who resented being a dramatic character and indignantly repudiated what he saw as his obligation to tell us a coherent story. The piece was peppered with bright and surprising articulacy and Lewis Black-style insult humor (prompting the indignant exit of a planted spectator at one point), but both its depth and its comic charm lay in its furious impatience and its clever use of self-deprecation and audience-antagonism as forms of metaphysical investigation.

Eno's characters brood on spiritual emptiness. They are more worldly than Beckett's indomitable tramps and decrepits, but they share their persistent psychic restlessness. In Thom Pain, in the evening of shorts Oh the Humanity and Other Exclamations (2007), and in Middletown, Eno has identified a peculiar brand of mental hermeticism among ordinary contemporary people as his special field of exploration, writing rambling yet philosophically pointed monologues in which moment-to-moment perceptions are subjected to ruthless freeze-frame scrutiny. Volubility is his characters' mode of living and thinking--of being, as the existentialists used to put it--and that affinity with the likes of Beckett, Joyce and Dostoyevsky is evidence of Eno's extraordinary ambition.

Middletown--splendidly directed by Ken Rus Schmoll in this New York premiere--introduces itself as a sort of anti-Our Town, inviting us into a quintessential American small town where quiet anxiety and uncynical self-consciousness prevail. The environment David Zinn has designed, dominated by a pair of dully modular house-fronts with windows big enough to spy on the occupants, emphasizes the place's deadly normalcy and regularity. Wilder's Grovers Corners was also suffused with quiet anxiety, of course, but it wasn't as self-consciously trite as Eno's Middletown, where "the main street is called Main Street and the side streets are named after trees," as the local cop tells us. Middletown is a postmodern cliché of hyper-normalcy, an exaggeration relentlessly overworked in recent decades by David Lynch, with his gently mocking, contrived surrealism. Eno isn't interested in surrealism, thankfully. He focuses on quirkily perceptive characters who chase their thoughts down idiosyncratic rabbit holes of doubt and logical inference drawn from their everyday experience.

The first character to appear is a Public Speaker--played with wry, Rotarian nonchalance by David Garrison--who welcomes us to the show and suggests he might be a sort of guide, like the Stage Manager in Our Town. As it happens, he's not up to that role. He can't even finish his greeting. His single sentence becomes a slippery worm, a mad, Lucky-like digression that enumerates all the possible listeners that occur to him, stringing his mind along for five hilarious minutes:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues, Members of the Board, Middletonians, Local Dignitaries, everyone really, stockbrokers, dockworkers, celebrities, nobodies, Ladies, Gentlemen, all comers, newcomers, the newly departed, the poorly depicted, people who are still teething, who are looking for a helping verb, the quote beautiful, the unquote unbeautiful, whose bones are just so, whose veins are just so, the drunk, the high, the blue, the down, los pueblos, los animales, foreigners, strangers, bookworms, those whose eyes are tired from trying to read something into everything, those at a crossroads, in a crisis, a quandary, a velvety chair, the dirty, the hungry, yes, we the cranky, the thirsty, the furious, the happy, who are filled with life, bloated with it. . .

Next to appear is the cop, a clean-cut, haplessly overconfident fellow played with dead-on obtuseness by Michael Park, who speaks in proud and proprietary generalizations about the town, suggesting that he might be our Wilderesque guide, except that he has nothing much to say about Middletown and soon distracts himself by violently harassing an innocent bystander on a bench. And so it goes for the rest of the act, with various other characters introduced in situations that begin in a familiar vein and then veer off toward peculiar or disturbing sidings. None of these people has enough self-possession, let alone objectivity, to narrate more than a tiny piece of the overall story.

A romance seems to bud, for example, between a handyman named John Dodge (Linus Roache) and a woman named Mrs. Swanson (Heather Burns) who is new to town and whose husband travels a lot, but their fragmented and desultory conversations only deepen their separateness. A tourist couple visiting the town is bored by the sole stone monument there and asks if the tourguide can do better ("we just like some perspective with our history. Some little, like, gossipy footnote about a local dish or a bastard child"), whereupon the guide embarks on a woolly and tentative speech about the continuity of molecules across eons. An astronaut (a native of Middletown) is moved to wax mystical about the enormity of the view from his space capsule, but he can't find adequate language and the clichés he does muster bore his ground-control handlers, who steer him back to dry radio protocol.

What links all of these vignettes is their shared theme of psychic centerlessness, a feeling of disempowerment specific to people who are superficially comfortable in the world. All the characters desperately long for some perspective from which they might see and thwart what ails them, and Middletown’s exaggerated normalcy is a trope for their sense of entrapment within tormentingly smooth walls. It’s as if they all seek points of traction, or creative friction, that might vary their outlooks a bit and allow them to climb above their habitual mental refuges momentarily and see their situations whole. Their efforts are, as expected, heartbreakingly futile.

Eno paints this dilemma vividly and makes it theatrically exciting for an hour or so. Unfortunately, he has little more to say about it than what is packed into the establishing circumstances. After intermission, Middletown grows tediously redundant and predictable, becoming an essentially conventional dramatic experience centered on the dreary story of Dodge and Mrs. Swanson’s non-affair. A few more of those philosophically meaty, disconnected vignette scenes crop up, but they come off as afterthoughts, making exactly the same points about emptiness and separateness heard before. With the adjacent house-fronts replaced by adjacent hospital beds, the thrust is numbingly directed toward the approach of a hackneyed resolution in which the end of one life (Dodge’s) is neatly juxtaposed with the beginning of another (Mrs. Swanson’s newborn child). The character Thom Pain—keen critic as well as a merciless repeater of the phrase “I don’t know”—would have savagely skewered such a mendacious imposition of balance, harmony and order.

It is puzzling indeed to see a falloff so precipitous from a writer of Eno’s talent and insight, and though I have no information on how it occurred, I strongly suspect it had to do with pressure on him to produce “evening-length” work, since all his earlier pieces were short. Which only prompts me to ask: what is wrong with being a master of the gem-like short? Yes, it probably would reduce one’s opportunities for regional and Off-Broadway productions (though that never fazed Beckett or Pinter). The dubious alternative, though, is to become a nominally successful Off-Broadway dramatist whose second acts are plainly unworthy of his first.


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