In “The Realistic Joneses,” a kind of “Endgame” reoriented to the American suburbs, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei as a couple named Jones pay an unexpected visit to introduce themselves to their new neighbors, also named Jones and portrayed by Tracy Letts and Toni Collette.
“This was fun,” one Jones says to another at the end of that first scene. “I mean, not fun, but definitely some other word.”
Not long afterwards, a moment of clarity occurred, which was also a moment of dread: “The Realistic Joneses” is not going to be realistic, I realized, and it’s not going to go anywhere.
Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and thoroughly cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over. Here is what we know:
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John and Pony Jones (Hall and Tomei) have just moved into the semi-rural community where Bob and Jennifer (Letts and Colette) have lived for some time. Both men are suffering from the same rare degenerative neurological disease, which isn’t really a coincidence: A specialist in the disease has his office in this small town. The men have reacted differently: Bob leans on Jennifer; John hasn’t even told Pony. The wife of one of the couples and the husband of the other have apparently compared fears and exchanged bodily fluids. The disease affects language.
Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.
Eno has been a distinctive presence in New York theater for a decade, making a splash with “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Eno’s plays are generally less concerned with plot or character – with any kind of linear coherence – than they are with language. He is intrigued by the banalities, awkwardness and outright weirdness of everyday language, injecting his own brand of word play, non-sequiturs and outright nonsense. Here is an exchange from The Realistic Joneses:
Pony Jones: I never know what he’s talking about. Say one of your things.
John Jones: Oh, this is a good one. So, if you take the letters from the words “The United States of America,” and you scramble them all up, it doesn’t spell anything. It’s just gobbledygook, total nonsense.
Bob Jones: So don’t scramble them up.
One can argue that Enos playfulness with language has found a good match in the story of two men afflicted with a disease that affects language. There is a suggestion in “The Realistic Joneses” that human beings face the cosmic questions like mortality and ultimate meaning by retreating into pedestrian chatter; that words fail to create connections. I suspect the trick to appreciating “The Realistic Joneses” may be to resist the attempt to find its overall meaning, and hone in on specific moments. Aficionados of modern art revel in an abstract painting’s specific textures; Eno enthusiasts can enjoy specific exchanges in his absurdist play’s text, helped along by the four starry cast members’ fine performances, wrangling many moments of humor and even a few of feeling. Letts is particularly good in delivering lines so that they somehow resonate:
“I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us. But, you know, what are you going to do. I forgot, I grabbed some mints at the restaurant. I like mints. Mint.”
While it is clear that Eno is influenced by Samuel Beckett, “The Realistic Joneses” has little of the haunting, apocalyptic quality of Beckett’s post-war plays. Perhaps the playwright isn’t trying for this; times, after all, are different.
Theatergoers can take heart in that even the characters don’t seem to know what’s going on:
“I get what you’re saying,” Bob says to John about midway through “The Realistic Joneses.”
“You don’t get what I’m saying,” John replies. “Not your fault. Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway. It’s all just bodies and light. People say it’s death and taxes, which, of course, are great, but, no, it’s bodies and light. Appearance, disappearance, that’s the whole thing….”
Ok, if you say so.
The Realistic Joneses
By Will Eno
Directed by Sam Gold
Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Leon Rothenberg
Cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39.00 – $135.00
The Realistic Joneses is set to run through July 6, 2014