A realistic — yes, realistic! — backyard set is currently filling the wide stage at Yale Repertory Theatre, where Will Eno’s latest play, The Realistic Joneses, is currently receiving its world premiere production starring a cast of notables, including Glenn Fitzgerald (This at Playwrights Horizons, Lobby Hero), Johanna Day (August: Osage County, Proof, Eno’s Middletown), Tracy Letts (author of Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County and a regular stage actor), and Parker Posey (best known for the film Dazed and Confused and the films of Christopher Guest).
As the play opens, we’re at the rural backyard picnic table of Bob (Letts) and Jennifer (Day), where the two are discussing the sounds of nature, painting the house, and other typical marriage talking points — until the conversation veers toward Bob’s mysterious illness, which is causing his health to slowly decline. Not long after their conversation takes a turn for the serious, they’re met with the arrival of John (Fitzgerland) and Pony (Posey), a slightly younger couple who’ve recently moved into an adjacent house and who’ve come, awkwardly, with a bottle of champagne to greet their new neighbors.
Eno, most well-known for his one-man play Thom Pain (based on nothing) and the well-reviewed Middletown, both pieces infused with heightened states of reality, writes in the program notes for Joneses that the jumping-off place for the play was a desire to write in a more “realistic” mode (the exact definition of that word is, of course, in flux across the realm of theatre). In this play, Eno strives toward that goal by attempting to mimic the overlapping, disconnected patterns of human speech. Exchanges throughout the play involve one of the characters baring his or her soul only to be met with a mostly unrelated, occasionally rather wacky reply. An example:
Jennifer: I love my husband.
John: Hey, who doesn’t? Listen, here’s a little haiku:
The frog is dark green.
He is breathing like crazy.
It’s starting to snow.
Jennifer: I don’t know if a haiku is the best way to end a conversation.
John: Yeah, you’re probably right. But, hey, I’ll see you later.
From this brief exchange, you can get a sense of the disjointed, occasionally laconic exchanges that make up the bulk of Eno’s play, which takes place mostly in backyards and, when it departs from this sylvan setting, is still staged (rather effectively, thanks to the fine direction of Sam Gold) atop the green grassy stage floor.
The tone of the piece follows in the out-there quasi-hipster vein of writers like poet-novelist Tao Lin and indie filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Todd Solondz, who use language as a way of splitting open social mores, their words taking on a greater meaning as an almost sociological tool (or weapon, depending on the piece).
We’re eventually let in on the shared pains of our central foursome. Both men are suffering from the same disease (a specialist who treats said illness resides in the small town they’ve moved to, justifying the coincidence), and both women are coping in different ways (Jennifer is in on Bob’s treatment, while Pony has been left out of the loop by a fearful John).
It’s an intriguing set-up, and the play features many insightful moments and exchanges throughout. The cast assembled for this production could hardly be bettered. Posey should be signed up to interpret roles in each of Eno’s subsequent plays based on her masterful, deadpan comic turn here as a ditzy, well-meaning character not unlike some of those that she’s portrayed on film.
Day as Jennifer, always at the top of her game, manages to remain sympathetic, even as she and Bob dance the subtle tango of late-marriage. She’s matched by Letts in one of his first major acting gigs in the Northeast (he’s a Steppenwolf company member, typically based in Chicago), full of the quiet angst of a man whose usefulness is beginning to wain as his body simultaneously deteriorates.
Fitzgerald has the most opportunities to stretch as an actor, and he’s the first to experience a big moment of breakthrough, reaching out to Jennifer in the supermarket in a moment of much sought-after vulnerability (excerpted above). His is a quiet, fine performance within this tightly-tuned ensemble.
For all of Eno’s fine crafting (and his dialogue is well-thought-out throughout), there’s a measure of soul lacking in The Realistic Jonses nevertheless. If the writer here is challenging us to listen to the world with a different ear and to identify the ways in which his dialogue matches the seemingly-random, trivial ramblings of real people, he would do well to note that onstage dialogue will almost never (except in the instance of verbatim theatre, and even sometimes then) exactly achieve this effect. There’s a reason dramatists craft dialogue for the stage rather than recording real-world conversations line-for-line, first and foremost because a playwright can and should take agency over the shaping of, and the implications of a given conversation (a trait that is often lacking here).
Here there’s a meandering quality that occasionally left me cold but may mesmerize fans of indie dramas, those seeking the excoriating truths in the world around us in the form of everyday exchanges. Eno has been compared to Beckett on occasion as a miner of the uniqueness and subtleties that can be found in our intricate, strange language. But where Beckett succeeds by building a rhythmic symphony in many of his plays, shaping the direction of the piece within his mode of linguistic probing, Eno seems to focus too much on capturing speech patterns with presumed exactness and not enough on crafting a propulsive core for his realistic, flawed Joneses.