Language, especially in the context of its potential and its failings, is the primary focus of Will Eno‘s first Broadway outing, The Realistic Joneses. Focusing on two couples in a rural town, both with the last name Jones, Eno’s virtually plotless play nevertheless manages to make its mark, primarily thanks to its nihilistic humor, an ace cast, and some of the sharpest (if not most well-shaped) writing on Broadway this season.
Toni Collette and Tracy Letts play Jennifer and Bob Jones. Bob is suffering from a mysterious (fictitious) illness called Harriman Leavey Syndrome (“It sounds like a jazz combo,” comments another character), and Jennifer struggles to support him despite his aversion to any discussion of his disease. The two are having a fairly banal conversation at their picnic table out back when their neighbors John and Pony Jones (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) arrive in their yard to introduce themselves and drop off a bottle of wine.
John, a heating and air conditioning specialist, and Pony, who works at home in the greeting card industry, have more than their fair share of quirks — in fact John in particular is about as awkward as they come — but for the most part Jennifer and (to a lesser extent) Bob are just happy to meet some new folks. It turns out that John and Pony’s arrival, far from insubstantial, will come to shake up their lives in unexpected ways. John clumsily (but somewhat innocently) pursues Jennifer, though less out of a need for sex than for connection. Bob makes similar but more carnal advances toward Pony (which Bob later describes to Jennifer, dismissively, as “kid’s stuff”).
The four stars of the production work so well together that there truly is no weak link. Letts (the sole holdover from the New Haven cast and a Tony-winner for last season’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is alternately gruff and wise as Bob, wide-eyed despite his illness. Toni Collette as Jennifer is a type we can easily recognize — the loving, put-upon wife who won’t be content until she hears her husband put his failings into words. “Do not even start,” she tells Bob at one point, when he’s most poised to spill his guts. Then, a second later, “I’m waiting.” Their relationship is a highwire act they’re both still mastering.
Nonetheless, Bob and Jennifer have it more together than John and Pony, whose relationship relies, to an extent, on denial. Michael C. Hall is brilliantly off-the-wall as John, who spouts non sequiturs as if they were Shakespearean nuggets and uses haikus conversationally. Toward the play’s conclusion, he admits to Pony (a deliriously ditzy Marisa Tomei) that he’s often thought of leaving her. Rather than balking, though, Pony expresses her own doubts (of him and of herself), and their discussion seems only to solidify their bond.
You see, John suffers from HLS as well — both couples moved to the area because a leading specialist lives in town — but John and Pony never discuss it. It’s the two couples’ divergent ways of managing that give the play some much-needed dramatic heft. Which, ultimately, is better — the agony of honesty, or the bliss of ignorance? Eno takes a stab at exploring the pros and cons of each scenario and manages to elicit laughs as often as he serves up moments of existential dread.
The play, which was produced at Yale Rep in New Haven in 2012, represents some of Eno’s best writing to date. In my earlier assessment of the play, I admit I missed some of the intentional absurdity of the writing on display, which the cast brings out even more strongly in this new incarnation. The misunderstandings between long-time couples and the contradictions of everyday relationships are encapsulated here in perfectly-observed exchanges that aim to heighten rather than replicate everyday speech. Eno has further sharpened the play since its initial run as well, and the edits he’s made, especially for the character of John (who’s more three-dimensional now), have only improved the whole.
If you’re expecting much in the way of plot, Joneses might not be for you. Even when the couples’ follies are revealed toward the play’s end, they’re revealed subtly and with little in the way of fireworks or fanfare. This, somewhat refreshingly, isn’t melodrama — it lives more in the gray spaces of lived existence. While Joneses soars on the whole, though, it does lack dramatic shape and suffer from an overreliance on neat button-ending blackouts to scenes.
Sam Gold’s direction here keeps the play humming along in spite of the play’s imperfections. David Zinn’s set, the bulk of which is reproduced from the play’s run at Yale Rep, takes on a new character here, plopped as it has been onto a Broadway stage. To the sides of the stage are immense trees. A plain wall sits center stage, with a sliding door that leads into both of the Joneses’ side-by-side living spaces, but the theatre’s brick walls are exposed above the main playing space, eerily lit from time to time by lighting designer Mark Barton, who bathes the outer reaches of their world in vibrant purples and reds, heightening the sense of immensity that looms just outside these characters’ backyards.
It may well be argued that The Realistic Joneses would have been better served off-Broadway, or in a downtown space where its quirks could be appreciated in the wild. But within the comparatively tame auspices of a Broadway proscenium, the play truly soars, begging the question as to why fewer thought-provoking, convention-challenging new plays are being presented on Broadway, which ought to be (in an ideal world) representative of the pinnacle of the work being done in theatre today. It almost certainly took this heavyweight foursome of actors and the cache they bring with them to bring this play to the Main Stem, but kudos to them for believing in something original and, ultimately, moving, when there are plenty of classics — O’Neills, Pinters, and Shakespeares — to choose from. We’ve already seen those, but this is a truly something different (and thrillingly so). So why not celebrate?