BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Some people will find "Middletown" to be a beautiful — perhaps even a profound — study in human existence. Others may well dismiss Will Eno's latest drama as just so much obvious, overwritten bosh.
FYI, friends, I found myself often moved by the play and its hauntingly-acted production at the Vineyard Theatre. If there's such a thing as warmhearted existentialism, then "Middletown" offers plenty of it.
After an amusing speech of all-inclusive welcome, the modern-day play episodically depicts short scenes of small town American life during the uneventful course of a year. Nice newcomer Mary (Heather Burns) has a baby. Nice local guy John (Linus Roache) wrestles with growing angst. The nice librarian (sweet Georgia Engel, as darling as ever) prattles on about Middletown's distant roots.
Some folks are scarcely so pleasant, including a misfit grease monkey (James McMenamin, resembling a dissolute Leonardo DiCaprio) and an aggressive cop (Michael Park). More than 20 incidental characters are portrayed by seven other actors.
The scenes are extremely mundane. A kitchen sink is fixed. The pregnant Mary chats with her doctor. A tree is planted. The mechanic picks through a hospital dumpster. Somebody dies. And so on.
Eno's essential message that everyone more or less experiences what their ancestors did proves strangely comforting. We all begin as babies. Time inexorably marches everyone along towards a certain though unknown mortal conclusion. Some people's lives simply are better than others. Love helps.
Pebbles of quirky humor frequently ripple the play's meditative nature. "If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer," remarks the mechanic.
"I read articles about identity theft and I actually get a little jealous," says John, whose life hasn't turned out so great. "Just take it, you know? Good luck, fella."
The drama's situation and universal themes recall a post-modern variation on Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," although Eno's thoughtful text is more loquacious and not so folksy. At times "Middletown" turns a bit self-conscious - a scene where theatergoers are portrayed chatting about the play during intermission perhaps is unnecessary - but the unassuming charm of Eno's dialogue eases what might seem pretentious about the two-act work, which gently glows with compassion and good will.
It's a tricky piece to stage, but director Ken Rus Schmoll and his subtle designers give Vineyard Theatre's world premiere a quietly detached quality that enhances the play's heightened nature. All of the acting, too, is deliberately low-keyed (nearly deadpan at times) yet magically conveys a sense of warm actuality.
The sweet-voiced Burns is radiant as Mary while Roache lends his mild-mannered loser, John, an aching feeling of loneliness. David Garrison is perfect whether depicting the guy who blithely welcomes the audience, a kindly physician or the town's one celebrity, an astronaut who contemplates the world from a very far distance.
"Middletown" continues through Nov. 21 at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., New York. Call (212) 353-0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org.