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NEW YORK – In a typically double-edged moment in The Realistic Joneses, Marisa Tomei‘s frightened character takes a clumsy stab at praying. “You’re probably, like, my God, what is this even about?” she muses to the Almighty. Audiences drawn solely by the impressive cast might share that confusion, given what a bold departure this represents for commercially risk-averse Broadway. The absurdist intellectual humor of playwright Will Eno is very much an acquired taste, provoking as much discomfort as laughs, and placing him somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. But theatergoers willing to dive into the sea of ellipses in this mordant, melancholy existential sitcom will find the waters bracing.
Commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered to glowing reviews in 2012 with a different cast, the play has been directed by Sam Gold with precision and an acute ear for the twilight zone of silence. The production’s terrific four-person cast, which includes Tomei, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and one Yale Rep carryover, Tracy Letts, is similarly attuned to the tricky, fragmented rhythms of Eno’s language, with its snaking non-sequiturs and its grenades of profundity lobbed in amongst seemingly trivial though somehow disquieting small talk.
Is The Realistic Joneses an ideal fit for Broadway? Not if the uncomfortable audience behavior at a press performance a few nights prior to opening was any indication. The anxious smattering of applause during scene changes seems a symptom of a crowd unsure how to react but conditioned to believe that star talent demands some noise. While the play is stuffed with droll wordplay and wry comic observations that hit the mark, you can also feel much of its humor and poetry not quite landing – getting lost in the airy space of a large auditorium. A work in which the awkwardness of intimacy is a key theme might seem more at home someplace cozier.
Eno’s poignant 2010 response to Thornton Wilder, Middletown, more readily yielded its emotional rewards, which would have made it a more natural choice for this idiosyncratic playwright’s move to theatrical primetime. But either way, those who connect with his distinctive voice and needling perceptions on how we communicate with the people we love and with ourselves will welcome the arrival.
Set in “a smallish town not far from some mountains,” the play opens with Bob and Jennifer Jones (Letts and Collette) taking in the night air in their backyard among the trees. An owl hoots, clouds drift overhead, and the couple make halting attempts at what now passes for conversation between them. When prickly Bob suggests that they are, in fact, talking, Jennifer corrects him: “No, we’re – I don’t know – sort of throwing words at each other.”
The stiffness is interrupted when their new neighbors, John and Pony (Hall and Tomei), who share the same surname, swing by unannounced with a bottle of wine, shifting the dynamic with their more youthful insouciance. These strangers are garrulous but at the same time withholding; affable on the surface, though particularly in John’s case, also slyly contrary.
This is a very amusing opening scene, but director Gold keeps a firm hold on the unsettling energy as the newcomers outstay their tentative welcome with Bob and Jennifer. Dread hangs in the pleasant night air, even before skittish Pony spots a dead squirrel on the ground. Part of that unease comes from Jennifer blurting out details of Bob’s rare degenerative neurological disease, which causes him spasms of pain, periodic vision loss and memory lapses.
As the two couples’ lives intertwine, it soon becomes apparent that seemingly chipper John and irascible Bob have something in common, and each has his own complicated coping mechanisms. Likewise, Jennifer and Pony share the challenge of negotiating with men unaccustomed to being open about their fears.
Given Pony’s aversion to illness, John keeps her in the dark about his health issues in order to protect her. He reaches out for a connection with Jennifer, who is feeling the strain of being Bob’s caregiver. “It’s weird,” John says, when he bumps into her at the supermarket. “You want this conversation to end, but, I want it to keep going.” The way these two can misread each other while also intuiting the pain beneath their communication barrier is unexpectedly moving. Jennifer sees John’s bluntness as a refusal to show sympathy, while he questions her matter-of-factness about Bob’s condition. “You have a lot of composure,” he tells her. “Thank you,” she replies. “Oh, you took that as a compliment – okay.”
Questions of mortality, solitude, love, loss, humanity and the universe surface in sneaky ways that catch you off-guard in Eno’s writing. What might sound to the casual listener like off-the-cuff glibness often artfully veils an emotional depth charge. Pay attention to The Realistic Joneses and you could find yourself wondering, long into the night after this haunting play is over, how well you know the people closest to you, or indeed, yourself.
Here and in his other work, which includes the extended monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) and the recent The Open House, the playwright displays an insightful understanding of the role that denial, large and small, plays in helping us to navigate life’s chaos. If Eno has a central theme it’s that language is all we have, and even that can fail us.
Hall has the meatiest role here, and he’s superb. The actor brings such a live-wire, destabilizing edge to almost every exchange in which John participates that it’s hard to identify at what point he exposes the anguish churning inside him. No less nuanced is Letts, the Pulitzer-winning writer of August: Osage County who won a Tony Award last season for his ferociously intelligent take on George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He makes Bob an impolite grouch, determined to leave the details of his treatment to his over-taxed wife, yet his angry confusion pulls us in closer rather than distancing us.
The Realistic Joneses is fundamentally about two men whose bodies and minds are shutting down, and two women struggling to help them. As written by Eno, the male-bonding scene that such a scenario pretty much dictates becomes a beautiful, funny-sad duet of the unspoken between Hall and Letts.
Tomei finds a tender balance between Pony’s daffiness and her despair, while Collette, whose naturalness can cut through even the very deliberate theatrical artifice of Eno’s dialogue and scene construction, anchors the play with her somber restraint and deadpan delivery.
There’s a clever visual joke in David Zinn‘s set, suggesting the doors to oblivion in the homes of both Joneses, but the most invaluable design contribution is Leon Rothenberg‘s sound, in which the faint din of nature seems to blanket the quieter rumblings of the cosmos. “I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us,” Bob observes in the final scene, as the two couples sit on picnic chairs looking up at the sky and drinking in that sound. “But, you know, what are you going to do.”
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York
Cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei
Director: Sam Gold
Playwright: Will Eno
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, Stacey Mindich, Susan Gallin, Mary Lu Roffe, Andy Sandberg, Scott M. Delman, William Berlind, Caiola Productions, CandyWendyJamie Productions, Amy Danis & Mark Johannes, Finn Moellenberg Productions, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jay Franke, Gesso Productions, Grimaldi Astrachan Hello Entertainment, Meg Herman, Mara Smigel Rutter Productions, KM-R&D, Will Trice, in association with Yale Repertory Theatre
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