Will Eno’s oddball play is a surprising last minute addition to the very rich ’13-’14 Broadway season, as it arrives starring four excellent actors who will help it find an audience.
Commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre, it had a successful run in New Haven with a less stellar cast (except for the excellent and recently appreciated Tracy Letts, whose work last year in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? instantly turned him into a major player). It reaches Broadway via the auspices of Jeffrey Richards and a consortium of some twenty associates, some of whom have associates of their own. It’s a total surprise to find a play of this complexity (or simplicity) daring to risk the financial vicissitudes of the Big Street, for its wry and original sense of humor masks a lot of pain and confusion in its company of characters. Beckett comes to mind, so does Harold Pinter. Yet Mr. Eno has his very own voice, and an intriguing one it is.
Simply put, he has placed an average couple, Bob and Jennifer Jones (Tracy Letts and Toni Collette), onstage enjoying the summer evening’s air behind their simple home in “a smallish town not far from some moutains.” They’re having a post-dinner conversation about nothing in particular but they appear to be pleasant folks who are clearly comfortable with each other. Despite their banter, some of it light and amusing, there is a subtle subtext of abrasion. When Jennifer complains that they never “talk to each other”, Bob tells her “we’re talking now” and she replies: “No, we’re just throwing words at each other.”
They are joined by a younger couple, John and Pony, (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) also named Jones. Affable and attractive, they are the new neighbors, and though their friendly chatter vaguely irritates Bob, they are warmly welcomed by Jennifer. In time they sense they might be overstaying that welcome, and they head back to their own home 200 yards away.
During the following 75 minutes of the play’s running time, they all come to know each other better. Mr. Eno’s dialogue is always refreshing, but only now and then is it even moderately illuminating. Pony’s stumble across a dead squirrel reveals her fear of wild life, and her general apprehension. She and her husband are somewhat like the visiting couple, Honey and Nick in Virginia Woolf — in that at first they seem charming and uncomplicated, and we later learn that John is suffering from a degenerative neurological disease which occasionally causes pain, vision loss and memory lapses, and that Pony is a frightened care giver, not well equipped for that role. In time, John finds common ground with Jennifer, and he and Bob bond somewhat over the fact that Bob too is suffering from a similar affliction. During an evening when the two men find themselves alone admiring the night sky, Eno hands them warming and amusing dialogue, but as always with a surprising twist, when John asks Bob to admire only his half of the heavenly display.
I have come to the conclusion that this is all much ado about not very much. At play’s end, the two couples have become friends, and they are comfortable with each other as they sit in their camp chairs gazing at the sky, taking comfort from each other, and tossing non sequiturs about as though they were words of wisdom. I do believe the last one comes from Bob Jones, as he reflects on the fact that he likes mint. Sorry, but that didn’t do it for me.
The great big plus in this production is its cast. Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei have proven to be resourceful and endearing actresses in the past on stage and in film. But Tracy Letts continues to amaze as one of the best character actors around, known only by his fans at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and to us as a major playwright (August:Osage County, Superior Donuts). He brings a starchy humor to his “Bob Jones”, of a very different sort than the colors of his characterization of “George” in last season’s Virginia Woolf). Michael C. Hall, who was seen for a brief time as “the MC” and “Billy Flynn” in New York revivals of Cabaret and Chicago, now reveals boyish enthusiasm and humor, two qualities never revealed in his long running TV series, “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter”. He and his three co-stars in The Realistic Joneses play beautifully together as members of an acting version of a great string quartet.
Mr. Eno’s highly original voice as a playwright is certainly welcome. This one playgoer however would appreciate more story and less metaphor. I had to work too hard after seeing this play, and I’m still realistically in the dark as to its point.
The Realistic Joneses is onstage at the Lyseum Theatre, 149 W 45th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).