The latest of many reasons I love playwright Will Eno: the way he writes for the stage determines the way his work is written about, free from cliché or unconsidered trope, demanding a reconsideration of habit and format.
In The Realistic Joneses, now running at 12th Avenue Arts, produced by New Century Theatre Company and directed by Paul Budraitis, no story “unfolds,” very little is revealed, and what is revealed isn’t reveled in. It’s a stretch to even call it a story, in the traditional sense of the word. Not that Eno cares overmuch for the traditional sense of anything.
Eno has been a darling of the off-Broadway scene since 2004 when his one-man play Thom Pain (based on nothing) caught fire at the Soho Theatre in London and transferred to the DR2 off-Broadway, and went on to be a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. It wasn’t until 2014 that Eno was finally produced on Broadway, with a star-studded production of Joneses.
Bob and Jennifer Jones (Evan Whitfield and Sunam Ellis) live in a small mountain town, leading small, quiet lives, working during the say, sitting outdoors in the evening. When Pony and John Jones (Brenda Joyner and Peter Dylan O’Connor) move in down the street, the two couples meet and get to know one another. They see one another in town, they exchange pleasantries, sometimes more. Some of life’s Big Issues make an appearance—illness, infidelity—but they’re all gently folded into this narrative meringue of life’s weirdness, tragedy, joy, fear, difficulty, miscommunication.
All four actors find simple truth as both individuals and pairs, Ellis’ frustrated warmth pushing against Whitfield’s brittle self-protection; Joyner’s acid optimism commingling with O’Connor’s brusque humor. Eno’s language teeters on the edge of absurdity, in a way that recognizes the innate humanness of all these people. “Nice meeting you, this was fun. Well not fun, but definitely some other word,” says John, as he and Pony depart the other Jones’ home for the first time. All four actors also find fluidity in Eno’s erratic language, peppered as it is with nonsequiturs and jumping at the chance to point out our arbitrary social tics by ignoring them:
“Oh hi—if it isn’t you,” John says to Jennifer, when they run into each other in a grocery story.
“No, it is,” she says.
But just as deftly, Eno lobs an exchange that lands squarely and swiftly in your gut.
“You hurt my feelings. You hurt my feelings every day,” Jennifer tells Bob.
“That’s what feelings are for,” he replies.
I was in love with this production for the first 30 minutes or so, but then, in mirroring the text’s semi-stasis, the design and direction seemed to actually work against the material, rather than with it. The pacing felt intentionally slow, which made this talented foursome of actors disconnect with language that requires deep interpersonal connection. The massive plywood set, while clever (sliding doors reveal new spaces, lights winking on and off on a tiny model village perched on top mark the passage of time) became hypnotically plain over time, and gave the lighting designer a hell of a time keeping people out of shadow. By keeping things slightly off-kilter, rather than highlighting the near-absurd text by surrounding it with a naturalistic shell, the play sometimes felt heavy instead of light, and lightness is a necessary counterweight to a very funny work laden with life’s small sadnesses.
The Realistic Joneses runs through July 1.