Contributor Lindsay B. Davis takes a look at 21st century suburbia with the help of playwright Will Eno and the superb cast of The Realistic Joneses.
Characters in The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s absurdist new dramedy at the Lyceum Theatre, spend a great deal of time looking up. Whether at the constellations, fireworks, or a hot air balloon, the choreography of their gazes work like Pinter pauses, helping to define the rhythm of this swiftly moving piece by emerging at specific times, in this case when one must gather thoughts, avert the close gaze of a counterpart or find comfort in the safety of living somewhere nestled in the mountains.
I am often struck by how content I am to watch certain actors do very little and in this case, the talent – a gifted, four-person ensemble cast featuring veterans Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, Hostages, The Wild Party), Tracy Letts (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Homeland), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler, Top Girls, Salome) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under, Cabaret, Chicago) – can look up all day and I would watch. Beyond that, they leverage virtuosity into simplicity, lifting Eno’s crafty dialogue and vignette-like structure into laughs and poignant emotional punches.
We meet the first set of Joneses, Jennifer (Collette) and Bob (Letts), chitchatting in their backyard surrounded by tall pines and the silence of suburbia (beautifully realized by scenic designer David Zinn.) “What are your fears?” asks Jennifer, who wants to dive deep, much to Bob’s chagrin. Letts flexes comedic muscles from the get-go, his rather salty, hefty deliveries calling out the obvious without condescension. To Bob’s relief, the conversation can’t plunge into terribly deep emotional valleys because it is interrupted by the arrival of a second set of Joneses, the upbeat Pony (Tomei) and John (Hall), who have just to moved into a house down the road and arrive as if fresh off the bus from a day at camp. Besides a shared last name, the couples don’t appear to have much in common. Pony is jovial and neurotic while Jennifer is weighted and direct. John is bemused and delighted to make their acquaintance, while Bob can’t wait to go to sleep.
After the requisite getting-to-know-you’s (Bob works for the Department of Transportation, Jennifer makes her living as a bookkeeper, Pony works for an online greeting card company and John does something with heating and A/C installations) things start getting real. Why do Bob and Jennifer prefer living in this town with a good school district? “Because,” Jen says, “Bob hates stupid children.” When Pony and John are leaving, the latter says, “This was fun. Not fun, some other word.” And after their new neighbors go home for the night, Jennifer says to Bob, “It was nice watching you with people.”
What follows are eleven more scenes in which a plot lightly unfolds as if from the hand of a Blackjack dealer flipping cards. One by one, a series of reveals, we learn of illness (both men have a similar and rare disease called HLS, which Jennifer explains is congenital and Pony is relieved can’t be caught), medical treatments, attractions to each other’s spouses, deep anxieties that manifest as comedic neurosis (again, Pony, “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut”) and all the Joneses varied attempts to find peace through such outlets as prayer, meditation and medication. But, to quote two tourists I overhead while exiting the theater—
“What the heck was that just about?”
“I don’t know!”
—this is not a play that is most appealing for reasons of story. Rather, it is one that draws you in because its characters are beholden to language, using it to observe, avoid and engage, heavily relying upon it to connect, but ultimately looking for things in themselves and from each other that cannot be put into words.
Fascinating dynamics emerge from the exceptionally talented ensemble that evolve these four childless adult characters into something of a nuclear family, varying and transitioning between roles as adult parent and little child as well as siblings. Collette’s Jennifer has a maternal nature rooted in seriousness, as she resists the overuse of words, underuse of feelings or indulgence into various escapes that her counterparts prefer.
Tomei skillfully gives Pony the animated innocence of a little girl, approaching her neighbors like parents and husband as if she is his sister, replete with gummy candy offerings to close their emotional distance.
Hall is pitch perfect, deftly handling non-sequiturs and self-assessed attention deficit disorder induced one-liners with boyish charm. In a very funny scene shared with Letts under flickering motion sensor backyard lights (a nod to lighting designer Mark Barton is well-deserved), they explore the subject of manhood, with Letts’ Bob owning his own as if for the first time. “We’re just a couple of guys. Men. ”
It’s all very poignant and fresh, something that speaks to Sam Gold’s spacious direction, which takes four heavyweight actors and allows them to shine without dominating or overshadowing each other or the text. In his hands, comedic lines pop and more weighted moments breathe as characters realistically struggle to come up for air.
Realistic? That may depend on your definition, but Eno’s neighborhood is one that most will find intriguing, particularly when the Joneses are home.
The Realistic Joneses
149 West 45th Street
Through July 6.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.