Attention theatergoers: Another play about how hollow life is in these post-post days is now playing at the Vineyard Theatre. It’s drawl, depressing, occasionally funny and ultimately pointless. And it’s two and a half hours long. To the credit of the talented cast and crew of Will Eno’s latest offering, Middletown, those hours go by rather quickly. What happens? A bunch of characters introduce themselves to the audience, say funny things, choke each other, say some more funny things, go to the library, and top it off with saying some funny things. Then comes intermission, which for me consisted of a chat with a fellow spectator, who succinctly summarized what the play is saying: “Some things are eternal, but not.” He nailed it. At this point, the play still seemed like it could be hiding something under its celebrated cloak of mundanity.
Quickly after resuming the action, however, the direction of the piece becomes clear – depressing philosophizing replaces humorous chit-chat. The second act shows each of the rather endearing characters we met in the first act (James Mcmenamin is especially sweet as the prospect-less George Gibbs) deteriorating into depression and death. We end up in a hospital, where all of them converge for one reason or another. The only exception is the delightful librarian, played with sweet, compassionate detachment by Georgia Engel.
The set, costumes (David Zinn) and lighting (Tyler Micoleau) all work coherently to convey the drab simplicity of contemporary life. The acting style also is simple and to the point, and director Ken Russ Schmoll aptly does what the script demands. Mr. Eno is clearly talented, drawing his audience along with little action and bouncy dialogue, swinging the play cleverly back and forth between the realities of Middletown and that of the present moment in the theater.
However, the play makes the mistake of constantly calling attention to its relation to its mythological ancestor, Our Town, and never comes close to living up to that comparison. The one aspect of Eno's adaptation that does draw from Wilder in a way that adds color and depth to the production is the actors' ongoing interaction with the audience. The first act, for example, ends with us watching a theatricalized version of ourselves - actors playing audience members talking about the first half of the play, texting, and wondering what will come next in the second act. "Oh, it's starting," they say, at the end of their five minute dialogue. We watch the lights go down on the actor-audience, and feel the lights come up on us - intermission.
Still, the evening amounts to a sad conclusion, one which is actually far from true: that our day and age is not only far more hollow than the time when Wilder wrote his masterpiece, but also incapable of creating its own stories, instead relying on adapting those of past times.