There is out there, and then there is Will Eno. An interviewer once asked him one of those personality-in-a-nutshell questions. If you could pick any superpower for yourself, he asked the playwright, which one would you select?
“The former Soviet Union,” Eno replied.
The ways by which words are commodified, commercialized, weaponized and manipulated are Eno’s stock in trade. Thus, in The Flu Season, a doctor tells parents how to get to the place which holds their dead daughter’s body. “Turn right at the giant ice cream cone,” he says. In Thom Pain (based on nothing) the solitary narrator tells a series of bizarre stories, each of them impossible on their own terms. (“‘You’ve changed!’ she told me on the night we met.”)
And in The Realistic Joneses, now being given a vigorous and thoughtful production at Spooky Action Theater on 16th Street NW, Bob Jones (Todd Scofield), Jennifer Jones (Lisa M. Hodsoll), John Jones (Brandon McCoy) and Pony Jones (Amanda Forstrom) use words in order not to communicate with each other. Provided with an opportunity to open their hearts, they trivialize their lives instead. Jennifer asks her husband, Bob, who is critically ill, whether he would like to talk. Bob points out that he just talked about repainting the house. Pony admires Bob and Jennifer’s salt and pepper shakers; Bob replies that “they were made in a factory.”
Bob and Jennifer are in their forties; Bob’s job, until fairly recently, was as a procurement officer for the local department of transportation. Jennifer’s job is — Bob. They live in an unnamed country town and are in their back yard when John and Pony — the fact they have the same last name is coincidental — wander in. They have moved into an empty house down the road. Pony runs a greeting card company, on the internet, out of her house. John is — “an astronaut!” He explains he uses the term broadly; he’s actually in heating and air conditioning.
There is a fifth character in this play: Harriman-Leavey Syndrome, a rare and fatal genetic flaw which increases the flow of copper into the blood, effecting the nerves and mental faculties. Harriman Leavey Syndrome is fictional, but so what? So are the Joneses. The suffering it brings to Bob, and those who try to love him, is real enough.
In a conventional play, pain and mortality are paths to human understanding. In The Realistic Joneses, they are an occasion for laughter and scorn. After John calls Harriman-Leavey Syndrome “The Benny Goodman Experience,” Jennifer corrects him, reminds him that it’s fatal, and asks him if the has a hilarious punchline for that.
“No. Actually, wait,” he says, and then he tries to figure out a punchline. In The Realistic Jones, pain is a way to set up a joke, and empathy is trumped by a bon mot.
DCTS details and tickets for The Realistic Joneses
And yet the Joneses are drawn together by more than their common last name. While they assiduously try to deny their pain and fear to each other, it is obvious to us. In fact, we know them more from what they don’t say than from what they say.
A conventional drama presents the protagonist’s dilemma and shows how he triumphs. The Realistic Joneses is a little more — um — realistic. Faced with the one insurmountable foe, the dilemma is not to triumph but to be human in its face.
For all its gorgeous language, it would be easy to play The Realistic Joneses badly. By inverting our expectations, Eno invites us to laugh, but if we laugh too much, we lose the emotional heart of the play. Director Gillian Drake and this veteran cast is too savvy for that. All four actors ground their characters so quickly that even when they deliver one of Eno’s acidic lines, we understand its context. Thus, for example, when Hodsil’s Jennifer rhapsodizes that her Bob’s name “gives comfort to dyslexics” we already know how deeply she cares for her husband, and at what cost.
In a fifties comedy, Pony might have been a ditzy blonde, but Forstrom plays her as a much more real, and recognizable, character: a woman whose beauty has given her a sense of entitlement, and who uses her attractiveness as a weapon. “Don’t get the wrong idea,” she instructs Bob, having put his hand on her chest. “What’s the wrong idea?” Bob responds. “What do you care what the wrong idea is?” Pony shoots back. As Forstrom delivers the character to us, her rage and defensiveness is real; she is only dimly aware of her presumptiveness, and how inappropriate it is. And yet when she comes to grips with how short of her own ideals she has come, it is moving, even tragic.
In many ways, McCoy has the hardest part; John is a self-indulgent wisecracker, and his relentless deflation of scene after scene risks alienating not only the other characters but the audience, in that it interrupts the narrative flow. By throwing off subtle clues to the tragedy which overhangs John’s life, McCoy — himself a playwright — helps Eno to achieve his overall objective, which is to show that all the Joneses, though they be sinners like us. deserve our attention and sympathy.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
In this play which constantly flips expectations, it is Scofield’s stolid Bob who anchors the story, and Scofield’s knowing, unfussy performance shows us why. For unknown reasons — it may be the effect of his malady, or its overwhelming emotional impact, or something in his personality unrelated to the disease — Bob has very little affect, and Scofield has the chops to play him that way. Within the character’s limited emotional range, Scofield is able to show anger, shame, love, excitement, horror and, for a few minutes, hope. When he commits an unexpected transgressive act, you can see that he has given himself permission to fantasize that all is normal again. He is also happy in a later scene, when he has taken a large dose of mood elevator. You can immediately see the difference.
Spooky Action performs this play, as it performs all its plays, in a tiny space in the basement of a church. Scenic designer Giorgos Tsappas and props designer Elizabeth Long are up to this challenge. They create woodsy backyards for the Jones homes in a way which will immediately invite you into the fictive dream. The reliable Gordon Nimmo-Smith expertly creates sounds both real and unreal, finding a way to represent, through his art, the oppressiveness of Harriman-Leavey Syndrome.
“I saw you crying and eating a Powerbar,” John tells Jennifer at one point. “And I thought, that’s one sad, busy person.”
The presence of imminent death makes life both horrifying and sweet in this sad and busy play, as it is and must be to us, especially now.
The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, directed by Gillian Drake, assisted by Matthew Vaky . Featuring Todd Scofield, Lisa Hodsoll, Brandon McCoy and Amanda Forstrom . Scenic design: Giorgos Tsappas . Lighting design: Alberto Segarra . Costume design: Robert Corghan . Sound design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Props design: Elizabeth Long . Movement coach: Robert Bowen Smith . Stage manager: David Elias, assisted by Magenta Howard . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
You must be logged in to post a comment.