The Realistic Joneses

40 Years On: A Preview of Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yale Summer Cabaret, a theatrical entity separate from Yale Cabaret (or “term time Cabaret”), which began life in 1974.

In tribute to the four decades of its existence, the current Yale Summer Cabaret, led by Artistic Directors Jessica Holt and Luke Harlan, with Managing Director Gretchen Wright and Associate Managing Director Sooyoung Hwang, will be staging plays by living American authors, beginning with Christopher Durang, who was one of the founding members of the Summer Cabaret 40 years ago. Today, of course, he’s celebrated for plays such as his most recent, the Tony Award-winning “Best Play” of 2013, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which Summer Cab wanted to mount this year but Hartford Stage got there first), but, once upon a time, he was a YSD student working in the Summer Cabaret.

The decision to feature contemporary American playwrights follows nicely on last year’s program, which was a kind of syllabus of world theater, from the neoclassicism of Molière through naturalism, symbolism, and ending with the absurdist and pointed work of contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill. The note reached at the end of last year’s Summer Cab, with Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You looking askance at American dominance since WWII, sets up nicely this year’s program of “voices at the forefront of American theater,” works that encapsulate complex perspectives on our cultural heritage, our place in the world, our self-image, and our values, as a nation.

The shows will, like last year, open sequentially and play for about two weeks each. At midsummer, a break will give the company time to reconfigure the space so that, unlike last year, the seating arrangements will not remain fixed for the entire summer but will alter midway. This, Holt and Harlan feel, gives audiences the best of both worlds: the stage-like setup of last year’s Summer Cab, for two shows, and the more amorphous arrangements typical of term-time Cab for the next two shows. Capping off the two months of contemporary full-length plays will be a four-day program of very recent short plays, all by YSD alums, including the three playwrights currently featured at this year’s Carlotta Festival, Hansol Jung, Mary Laws, Kate Tarker.

The Program

First up, in June, is Christopher Durang’s 2009 absurdist comedy Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them which Holt, who will direct, describes as a “wildly funny, wacky, and zany” comedy about such laughing matters as torture, terrorism, gun violence, domestic dysfunction, male domination, and the fraught nature of interracial or cross-cultural marriage in America. In Holt’s view, the play is “grappling with what it means to be American,” and so, ultimately, fits the Summer program better than Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would have.

We meet Felicity (Ariana Venturi), a young woman who has apparently married the unsettling Zamir (James Custati-Moyer) while drunk, so that she seems to be meeting him when we do, as she has no previous recollection of him. Then, of course, we go home to meet the folks: father (Aaron Bartz) and mother (Maura Hooper), with support from Aubie Merrylees as the seedy Reverend Mike, Celeste Arias as Hildegarde, dad’s “colleague,” and Andrew Burnap providing the cartoonish voice over. The play takes on most of the things the news keeps Americans fretting about, as stories of violence and the threat of violence are as American as television. From 5 June to 15 June

Next, still in June, Luke Harlan will direct Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue (2012), a New England premiere. Harlan calls the play a “journey into darkness” that mixes genres—romantic comedy, horror story, mystery, docu-drama—to keep the audience guessing. Narrated by a bird statue, the play tweaks expectations at every turn, but is also structurally symmetrical, with 6 scenes leading to a major event and 6 scenes following that key moment. With a cast of 7, the play mainly focuses on Sarah and Nate, a stranger named Mark and a house in the woods. An “exploration of evil,” the play, Holt says, is also “charming, brilliant, and ebulliently written,” and addresses the effect on relationships of traumatic events. From 19 June to 29 June

After 11 days off, including the 4th of July weekend, the Summer Cabaret returns with Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915. Director Jessica Holt calls the play, which played at SoHo Rep in 2012, directed by Eric Ting of the Long Wharf, a “meta-theatrical inquiry into cultural anthropology” as we watch a theatrical troupe in the process of creating a play about the “first genocide of the twentieth century.” Germany, during the inclusive years in the play’s title, controlled what was then called Deutsch-Südwestafrika, which is today the nation of Namibia, and during that time found cause to destroy the Herero tribe. With a ruthless efficiency that seems the prototype for genocide against Jews and Poles in WWII, German soldiers were put in the position of executioners of a native population. But the only record of what took place can be found in the soldiers’ letters home. In Drury’s play, the actors’ difficulties with imagining and inhabiting the roles dictated by the extreme situations—particularly with gaps in knowledge and motivation—leads to obvious analogies to violence against native and slave populations in the U.S. Holt sees the play within the play as an ingenious device to bring the audience into the situation through the comic and seemingly improvised interactions of rehearsal, inviting the audience to consider the implications of their own presence in the room with the actors. From 11 July to 26 July

The final full-length play is Will Eno’s Middletown, the author’s breakthrough play. Eno has been called, by Charles Isherwood, “the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation,” and, while I don’t know that many see themselves as defined generationally by watching Stewart, the notion of unsettling existentialism rubbing up against the self-aware ironies of the American media does strike a chord. Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, currently on Broadway, debuted at the Yale Rep in 2012 and was one of the best new plays to show up there in recent memory. Middletown dates from 2010 and is a kind of Our Town for an edgier era. In director Luke Harlan’s view the play asks, as does Our Town for an earlier time, “what does it mean to be alive right now?” Without romanticizing or dismissing everyday lives, but with real “humor and fear,” Harlan says, Eno’s play looks at normal people living normal lives in an “Anytown U.S.A.” but lets them say things no one says aloud. With a cast of 10 actors playing 20 characters, the show will be an opportunity to sample the excellent ensemble work of YSD and Cabaret shows. From 31 July to 10 August

Finally, the Summer Cabaret closes with Summer Shorts, a four-day festival of new short plays by six playwrights “whose work was first nurtured and developed at the Yale School of Drama.” Divided into Series A and Series B, there will be at least three plays in each Series (or evening), and on the last two days, Saturday and Sunday, August 16th and 17th, all the plays will be staged in two sequences, at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., respectively, both evenings. The line-up of plays will be previewed here during the Summer Cab’s July interim. This part of the program should be very interesting, seeing what can be done in a short compass by playwrights that Holt and Harlan regard as the future of theater. From 14 August to 17 August

The Team

Jessica Holt, rising third year directing candidate, and Luke Harlan, rising second year directing candidate, met at the meet-and-greet last spring when Harlan visited Yale as a prospective YSD student. They hit it off then, with their belief in new plays that had been fostered by their work in, respectively, the San Francisco and New York theater scenes. By the time Harlan was midway through his first year, the two had begun to plan a proposal for the Summer Cabaret, where Holt put in time working last summer. Their mission statement focused on the virtues of new and challenging works that had enjoyed successful and highly regarded first or, at most, second runs.

Very aware that they are presenting the 40th anniversary season of the beloved experiment that is the Summer Cabaret, the Co-Artistic Directors wanted to provide a provocative line-up of plays that tell stories. Both directed plays in last year’s term-time Cabaret: Holt directed Edward Bond’s darkly comic dystopian play Have I None, a U.S. premiere, and Harlan reached back to The Brothers Size, an early play by YSD alum Tarell Alvin McCraney that gave Yale Cabaret 46 a strong finish. Holt’s and Harlan’s choices showed the commitment to current plays and youngish playwrights demonstrated by the Summer Cab line-up.

For their Managing Director, Holt and Harlan asked around “and heard and observed good things” about Gretchen Wright, whose background in choreography may afford participation beyond the key role of keeping the Cabaret running smoothly. As regular patrons of the Summer Cabaret know, the summer is a different animal from the term-time Cabaret, becoming a welcome oasis in a college town whose median age ratchets up considerably in the summer months. Other entertainments of the “afterhours” variety may be added later.

With its first offering, the 40th anniversary Summer Cabaret will touch base with its origins before taking us on a journey that will demonstrate some of the contemporary values of theater—bending genres, looking at the problem of historical enactment, re-imagining the “domestic quotidian,” and demonstrating the resources of short but powerful recent pieces.

The key terms for the 40th Summer Cabaret, devised by Holt and Harlan, are Community. Excellence. Imagination. Innovation. Investigation. Wonder. Providing excellent theater to the New Haven community through innovative works that investigate our ways of life with a sense of imaginative wonder, the Summer Cabaret will up and running in three and a half weeks.

Prepare to be challenged.

The Yale Summer Cabaret 2014 Voices at the Forefront of American Theater

Photographs by Christopher Ash

Passes and single tickets are available online at, by phone at (203) 432-1567, by email at, and in person at the Yale Summer Cabaret box office (217 Park Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511).

Just Being Neighborly

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