Linus Roache and Heather Burns in Middletown
(© Carol Rosegg)
Linus Roache and Heather Burns in Middletown
(© Carol Rosegg)
The almost cartoon-like renderings of two suburban houses that are the focal point of David Zinn's scenic design for Will Eno's Middletown, playing at the Vineyard Theatre, belie the depth of emotion that's underneath the surface of this quirky and richly imagined play. And, in this immaculately staged production from director Ken Rus Schmoll, this modern-day equivalent to Thornton Wilder's Our Town proves to be a richly engaging and satisfying theatrical experience.

It's hard not to feel the influence of Wilder's classic when a character known only as "Public Speaker" (David Garrison) casually walks out onto the stage and welcomes the audience with a lengthy monologue that, in contemporary argot, takes pains to be all-inclusive, in the most P.C. way possible, while underscoring the existential questions that are at the play's core.

Eno then throws audiences a curve as the menace of this small town is brought to life in a slightly unsavory scene involving the town's "Cop" (played with a charming dimness and amusing swagger by Michael Park) and a drifter/rebel character known only as "Mechanic" (James McMenamin).

After this, the play settles into a generally sedate, yet disjointed, narrative that offers snapshots of life in Middletown, which, as described by the town's librarian (a delightful Georgia Engel), "was named for being between two other places..." Audiences will soon realize the two places that Middletown -- a sort of everywhere/anywhere -- is sandwiched between are birth and death.

If the premise sounds slightly fey, it can be. Eno can indulge in preciousness, particularly just before the first act curtain, employing a bit of metatheatrics to turn the tables on the audience. And, although it's delightfully off-kilter, a scene involving two demanding tourists (Ed Jewett and Cindy Cheung) and a somewhat jaded tour guide (McKenna Kerrigan) overstates the play's themes.

But these moments pale in comparison to the crux of the play which centers on the burgeoning friendship between the softly ebullient Mrs. Swanson (Heather Burns), a woman who's just moved to town with her unseen husband, and the vague, drifting John Dodge (Linus Roache, who makes a particularly lovable goofball), a local handyman. During the course of the play, she will achieve her goal of becoming pregnant, while he will succumb to increasing depression. Some of the finest moments in the production come when these two characters awkwardly meet and chat about their lives; the performers delve into Eno's disjointed dialogue with zest, mining it for both its heart and humor.

Equally compelling is a scene late in the play when Mechanic attempts to scrounge some pills out of the dumpsters outside the local hospital and encounters "Female Doctor" (Johanna Day). The actors infuse the encounter with a marvelously understated edge that fills the scene with piquancy, setting the stage perfectly for the play's final moments, which take audiences to the outskirts of Middletown.