Curious Feelings in “Middletown”
Director Ken Rus Schmoll builds silent tension in Will Eno’s play
There’s a birth, a death, and a scene where a cop chokes a guy with his nightstick, but the spirit of Middletown is really in its long silences. As directed by Ken Rus Schmoll at the Vineyard, Will Eno’s play creates a perpetual sense that Something Big is twitching below the surface of an American town. Sure, there’s a story—about two lonely people connecting with each other and with the rest of their kooky neighbors—but there’s a tremor in the air suggesting a hundred unsaid words
This energy feels delicate and mysterious, and for Schmoll, it’s crucial to the show. He explains, “Will’s larger questions of ‘what does it mean to be a person,’ ‘what does it mean to have a good life,’ there’s a way to handle that psychologically in the theatre. But he’s created this play that isn’t very psychological. The main dramatic tension is not about what’s going to happen next, although that’s there, but about the accumulation of events. The dramatic tension is about maintaining the quality of what it means to be a person up there. It’s not tremendously forceful, but it’s sort of a constant tension that keeps the audience a little aloft or leaning forward.”
But as a director, how do you create tension like that?
Part of the secret is casting. Middletown features famous actors like Linus Roache (Law & Order, Priest) and Georgia Engel (Mary Tyler Moore, Everybody Loves Raymond) and theatre vets like Johanna Day (Proof), and Schmoll says he cast them because they understand Eno’s language: “The right actor for this play is someone who can both merely say something and fill it with something that keeps it from being unimportant.”
Take Engel, who plays Middletown’s librarian. In an early scene, she’s asked if the library has books on childbirth. “We do,” she replies. “They’re in the business section—I’ve never known why.” That line simultaneously makes a joke lets you know that things are a little bit… off in this place. And indeed, Engel’s delivery is both casual and strange. There’s something about her wide eyes and slightly rushed delivery that pushes her just beyond realism.
Along with language, the company has been working on timing. “It’s about not letting things feel too rushed or too relaxed,” Scholl says, adding that it’s not always easy to articulate what the proper pace of the production should be, but that he knows it when he experiences it in the room.
Ultimately, Schmoll wants all this preparation—all this interplay between action and silence and tension—to create an honest depiction of how meaning buzzes beneath the surface of almost everything. “It’s a feeling I’ve had,” he says. “There are days when I want to lie down in the street and give up, but I don’t. I go to work and do my laundry, and there in the laundromat there’s a lot going on. But no one notices it.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.