The Realistic Joneses
The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno
Broadway, Lyceum Theatre
Reviewed by Scott Klavan, May 29, 2014
The Realistic Joneses, a new Broadway play by innovative, celebrated playwright Will Eno, featuring four popular stars, was completely rejected by The Tony Awards in April, receiving no nominations. It was controversial and surprising at the time, but having seen this bitter existential comedy, the exclusion becomes more predictable. The piece, driven by brief, corrosive one-line exchanges between two troubled couples, one older, the other younger, at a vacation town, has a limited story scope, an almost complete lack of dynamic action and overt emotion, and a purposely crappy set and tech; it would understandably turn off the mainstream Tonys, where direct, traditionally structured and staged, sentimental, life-affirming plays mostly get awards.
Yet, Joneses, directed by Sam Gold and performed by Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracey Letts and Marisa Tomei, is a courageous, sporadically hilarious attempt to offer something unusual: an unflinching, blackly comic exploration of the tragic inertia of modern people: lost, degraded by our shared ignorance, various forms of cowardice and solipsistic, time-wasting intellectual battles with the force that will inevitably lead us, no matter what we say or do, to humiliating, painful old age and oblivion. Sounds fun, huh? The theme of “Life Sucks And Then You Die” must have sent Tony voters streaming up the aisles, repeatedly texting a No vote on their phones before they hit the street. Instead, the committee nominated works by veteran playwrights Harvey Fierstein, James Lapine, Terrence McNally and John Patrick Shanley, all of whose current plays garnered, at best, a mixed critical and box office reception but who, nonetheless, represent the established, safe choice. After the nominations shut-out, The Realistic Joneses posted a closing notice for July 1.
The Realistic Joneses’ eschewal of the usual kind of theater-going pleasure (including its awkward title) is its most admirable as well as most frustrating trait. The work is alternately brilliantly funny and tedious; mesmerizingly caustic and tiresome. The minimalist story concerns middle-aged Bob and Jennifer Jones (Letts & Collette), returning to their vacation home in the mountains, where the husband is trying to recover from a complicated and dreadful degenerative neurological disease. Bob has internally denied the disease and doesn’t want to know any of the details or the dire prognosis; it is up to the caring Jennifer to nurse Bob and he becomes completely dependent on his wife, at the same time resenting her ministrations. Bob tries to forge ahead, or back, to his old self, all the while succumbing to the helpless new, old man he has become. Jennifer, baffled and angered by her husband’s increasingly odd responses, soldiers on in thankless maternal fashion.
These Joneses are visited by another, younger pair of Joneses (Hall & Tomei), an attractive, lively couple who has rented the house next door. Husband John is a garrulous, partially employed handyman, masking a crippling lack of confidence with sardonic, self-deprecating and ironic quips and pronouncements. Wife Pony half-heartedly runs an on-line greeting card company while employing a self-consciously ditzy identity to cover her own confusion about her intrinsic value and marriage. The two couples’ first frenetic and uncomfortable backyard encounter is punctuated by the discovery of a dead squirrel, which only Jennifer has the courage to throw in the trash.
Eventually, Bob is drawn to Pony, John to Jennifer. But both couples start to deteriorate. Inexplicably, John develops the same disease as Bob. He suffers alone, wandering off to sleep on the grass or taking hikes, ignoring his wife and making inept overtures to Jennifer, who waits impatiently for him to clarify his intentions; she doesn’t know whether to mother him or sleep with him. Bob and Pony go further but their dalliance becomes another example of the strained and perplexed attempt by both couples to express their needs, embrace each other and themselves, come to terms with their impenetrable, excruciating and fast-fleeting existence.
But the story is not the story here, as it were. It is the language that drives the show, the characters’ half-finished jokes, botched prayers, stop-and-start philosophies, and wisdom that is temporarily meaningful but finally useless. The men are physically ill and personally weak, the women supportive but rendered hapless by their connection to their failed men. All stew in their own juice.
Playwright Eno, who scored an Off-Broadway success with his one-man piece, Thom Pain (based on nothing) in 2005, uses deft wordplay to show us the worlds-within-worlds that the couples, broken-mirror reflections and ghosts of each other, agonizingly inhabit. There are the outer physical worlds of the body and of Nature; the inner mental lands of thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams and, most important, words; the strange middle where we use our uniquely human ability to detach and stand apart, observing and judging it all. All of these are hard enough to manage but all are shadowed by the “other world,” the huge, dark, mysterious but felt and feared un-place to which we are inexorably heading. At its best, the characters’ circuitous, beyond-clever interplay produces a dread and foreboding which the audience members, like the characters, relievedly toss off with nervous laughter. At times, the play even approaches the existential classics: the verbal trips to nowhere have elements of a contemporary Waiting For Godot; the false male bluster and thwarted female power recalls The Homecoming.
But there are lacks. The one-line exchanges—which expand into illuminating monologues in Beckett and Pinter—stay the same throughout, on one level, limiting the variety and breadth of expression. The affair between Bob and Pony, the biggest event in the story, is not shown, creating a curious hole in the show; the author and director did not solve the problem of including such an active incident and seemingly abandoned it, stranding the audience. (Plus, we missed having a riotous sex scene.) The denunciation of men and extolling of women comes off as more of a soft feminist sop than anything really genuine and true. Here, the playwright drops his objectivity and separates Male from Female, as if both are not full, and fully flawed, human beings, equally prone to Hamlet’s “heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Then, the work does primarily base its scenes on words, not subterranean actions, and this gnaws at the energetic thread. Scenes become similar and beat a horse that while not dead, starts staggering.
Sam Gold, one of the theater’s brightest new directors, who has excelled Off-Broadway with shows including Fun Home and Circle Mirror Transformation, and on Broadway with the revival of Picnic, handles the interaction with great sensitivity and intelligence. The set by David Zinn, with lousy fake trees and jarring fluorescent lights, is bravely, humorously awful. And the cast is filled with the best of our current star-artists: Tracey Letts has become the preeminent character-lead of today’s theater; Hall, Collette and Tomei are part of this new generation of beautiful TV-Film leads who are also accomplished, world-level performers. The sophistication of the characterizations and the collective sense of humor of the four players are profound. If there is one comment, it is that there is an imbalance when the four are on together. Letts and Hall, with their vocal power and presence, “pop” off the stage, while Collette and Tomei, with a smaller, cinematic feel, sometime recede into the woodwork. But all help the play enormously and are a treat to watch.
The rebuke by the Tonys of The Realistic Joneses offers the question: should the play have been on Broadway at all? In the past, a work of this nature would have been staged Off-Broadway and would have run to great acclamation for a year, to a smaller, more adventurous and tolerant crowd. (This was also true of The Velocity Of Autumn, with Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, a modest but enjoyable two-character piece that closed in May after two weeks on Broadway, despite Parsons’ Tony nomination.) But with several Off-Broadway houses closing due to Manhattan real estate pressures, there aren’t many smaller outlets left. Plus, Joneses’ twenty (no exaggeration) producers may have thought they could make a killing with this cast and writer and director in the Lucrative Big Time. The relatively quick fold of the show, and presumably, the loss of a lot of shirts, make this decision gutsy and ambitious but self-defeating. The real victim is the audience, who don’t get to see the Joneses, at a more affordable price, and for any length of time.
And there is a last, larger, creative question: is a play that provides little story or action; futility, with no possibility of change; despair, but no catharsis in the feeling—is a Deconstructionist anti-play a good play? The Realistic Joneses is hugely dexterous but cramped; knock-out witty but airless; insightful but dead-ended and stark. The Tony committee decided: No. But the fact that the play takes such risks, dares to fly in the face of convention and tradition, and is good enough to raise such pertinent questions and embody them so provocatively and intensely that the theatergoer thinks about it the next day and the day after that—Yes, here’s a vote for the play and its production being valiant, and worthwhile.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He will serve as Visiting Playwright in July, 2014, at Heartland Theatre Company’s New Plays from the Heartland Midwest One-Act Play Competition.
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