Now on stage at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is a funny and sad play that ponders the very real terror we use other people to avoid acknowledging. The unique strength of the play is that it both builds and batters the kinds of sympathy and companionableness that make human relationships possible. The effect is ultimately positive because Eno keeps his play within the realm of the humorous—avoiding the kind of Sturm und Drang moments that someone like Edward Albee would go after. And yet, at any moment in the play’s hour and a half running time, things could get much uglier and/or wilder, and that uncertainty—for the audience and the characters—is what gives the play its edge. Recalling, to me at least, an Albee play that brings together an older couple with a younger, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but also a play like A Delicate Balance (on stage at the Rep last season) where one couple is suddenly called upon by another because the latter are “afraid,” Eno brings together two couples, both named Jones, one settled, the other new in a vaguely rural town near mountains, and lets them brush up against one another in a succession of brief scenes. The older couple, Bob (Tracy Letts) and Jennifer (Johanna Day) are working through Bob’s illness, a condition that seems to interfere with his memory and his ability to process normal speech. The younger couple, John (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Pony (Parker Posey), are the perfect foils for the older couple because their speech is never quite normal. Instead, they speak in patterns of verbal anomie, disguised as quips or ironic asides: Pony: “Say no more.” Jennifer: “Have you had experience with something like this?” Pony: “I just didn’t want you to say any more.” The effect at times is like fencing in the dark where, having missed one’s target, one immediately accepts whatever one hits as the target.
This could become very fatiguing, but it’s not because the cast is marvelous: under Sam Gold’s direction, each actor is able to modulate speech that, taken as single lines, would sound like banal chit-chat but that, when placed in the context of Eno’s verbal see-sawing, become epigrams, odd insights, and the kind of comebacks that open or close on vistas of inference. Eno’s gift is to convince us that all language works this way: almost any statement can be a test, a defense, an experiment, a joke, a mistake, a feint, a plea. In normal speech, we tend to think we’re pretty adept at deciding if not what we’re hearing than at least how we choose to hear it. But in speech as the characters in The Realistic Joneses use it, we’re never quite sure how what they say affects, expresses, interacts with what they mean. The effect is fascinating and generally comic, with the characters often witty despite themselves: Pony: “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting that. Or I guess I was expecting that there wasn’t going to be that.”
There isn’t so much a plot as there are certain “reveals” that come out in the dialogue. If you nod, you might miss that someone has said something with plotlike implications, and if you do pay close attention you might still wonder what to make of how the four choose to talk around what’s happening. Eno works with the plot of couples mirroring each other and then swapping partners, not in the smarmy sense of musical beds, but rather in the effort to “keep up” with what the “other Joneses” are all about. More important, almost, than what’s happening is what the couples choose to say about it. A few times, the effort to have someone say something amusingly odd begins to tell, but for the most part remains amusing.
The action takes place on a clever stage design by David Zinn that can be both inside and outside—we’re never inside Bob and Jennifer’s house, but we’re at times both inside and outside John and Pony’s—as well as, for one brief but important scene, a supermarket aisle. The amorphous nature of the set—at one end an outdoors table, at the other end, a cluttered-with-boxes kitchen, and, in between, a sliding glass door—helps to erase the very boundaries that more “realistic” drama strives to render. The world of the Joneses is full of provisional spaces, spaces in both how they live and how they speak.
It’s also a world where time is a matter of Mark Barton’s realistic lighting (at one point John opines that “death and taxes” is not the phrase to measure verities, but rather “bodies and light”), and fun with props—a dead squirrel, a refrigerator, an old lamp, a ship in a bottle, a screwdriver, a transistor radio—measures our friction with our environment. There’s a great bit, sort of like waiting for Godot in a backyard, when Bob and John, in the latter’s yard, fool with each other’s groping attempts to find out something without admitting anything, while interacting with a motion-detection light.
The female characters carry much of the gravitas of the play: Jennifer must cope with how difficult living with her husband is becoming—a great bit on that score is the “we’re late for the doctor” scene—while Pony becomes, at least elliptically, a catalyst. As Jennifer, Johanna Day maintains a muted vitality that makes Jennifer the most sympathetic person on stage, her tone implying the kinds of inner resources we’re glad at least one character possesses, while, as Pony, Parker Posey is the most vulnerable because her familiar and distinctive voice (great to hear live) can make her tone both forthright and oblique at once, giving us the sense that Pony’s not quite sure what in her speech is mannerism and what matter.
As her husband, John is the most troubled character, apt to say things for effect and apt to be saddened or bitter about how little effect what he says has; Glenn Fitzgerald, it seemed to me, could go for a bit more pathos, in the end. As it is, his John Jones is the most difficult character—interesting, amusing, perhaps even threatening at times, but ultimately cold, or, in Jennifer’s words, “committed to not being sympathetic.” As Bob Jones, Tracy Letts puts the real in “realistic”: he seems to meld so fully with the character we feel we’re getting to know an actual person, finding in the incremental information we glean a man’s resources in teetering between what he’s always been and what he’s never been—nothing. Almost every word out of his mouth carries a lifetime’s worth of tired exasperation at how little words accomplish. It’s wonderful.
When the abyss comes close, Eno suggests, we value our banalities. In showing us that social interaction is largely a matter of taking comfort in, or exception with, something someone else just said, Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is keeping it real.
The Realistic Joneses By Will Eno Directed by Sam Gold
The Yale Repertory Theatre April 20 to May 12, 2012