Through May 12 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. (203) 432-1234, www.yalerep.org.
By Will Eno. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic and Costume Desinger: Mark Barton. Sound Designer: Ken Goodwin. Projection Designer: Paul Lieber. Production Dramaturgs: Amy Boratko and Anne Seiwerath. Stage Manager: Jenna Woods. Performed by Johanna Day (Jennifer Jones), Glenn Fitzgerald (John Jones), Tracy Letts (Bob Jones), Parker Posey (Pony Jones).
There’s a point mid-way through The Realistic Joneses where the akilter character John Jones (Glenn Fitzgerald) recites a haiku to his neighbor Jennifer Jones (Johanna Day.) She answers “I don’t know if a haiku is the best way to end a conversation.” Then John rattles off a string of short syllables—“Yeah, you’re probably right….”—which jolted me into this thought: Was that casual flurry of smalltalk a haiku too? I spent the next few seconds wondering if it scanned properly.
I checked the script later, and it doesn’t, but that’s how The Realistic Joneses makes you think. You think the writing is so clever that it’s even cleverer than you think, and you go looking for even more complex wordplay.
But don’t think too long, because moments after one precious exchange has commanded your attention, another is hard upon it. John’s “Yeah, you’re probably right” ends that scene (set in a grocery store), and seconds later we’re directed to another part of the stage, to John’s kitchen, where his wife Pony Jones is commenting on a smell in the refrigerator. “Sweetie, yuck. It still smells like something.” John answers “Everything smells like something,” and Pony sums up “It should just smell like cold air and plastic.”
Which sets the viewers mind toward cold, clinical, scientific olfactory pursuits. But really, it’s small talk, which bursts when John simply says “Is something bothering you?” and Pony simply agrees “I’m probably just thirsty, I’m not that complicated.”
Which may be the biggest understatement of this whole play. Every line of The Realistic Joneses seems carefully crafted and full of deeper meanings. Yet the crux of the whole play is that such banter—idle comments answered with idler ones, needless probings of the literal meanings of clichés—is often empty. Eno creates a surface of complacency, studded with wacky wordplay and hilarious comebacks, then invites you to delve under it at your own volition. The playwright doesn’t provide a road map to these characters’ hidden feelings, but he talks you through the descent in coded humor.
The Realistic Joneses has the sort of writing and directing which some theatergoers deride as filmic, with dialogue that you want to pause and rewind and sharp blackouts which abruptly move the action to whole new environments. Director Sam Gold and scenic designer David Zinn accomplish the rapid scene-shifts by laying all the main locations in the play out of the stage at the same time—an indoor kitchen abuts a patio, for instance. I can imagine other productions going for higher realism. But despite the numerous changes of location, not a lot happens in The Realistic Joneses, and in fact the most momentous physical acts of the show happen offstage, or precede the play entirely.
The point of the shifting dialogue is not, I think, just to keep the pace hopping and the action diverse but to show that the humdrum happens anywhere and everywhere, that most of us drift through our lives having one inane or unimportant conversation after another. Even when crucial issues are at stake—physical health, emotional balance, soulsearching—words are lacking, or hard topics are reflected.
Will Eno tips his hand rather heavily themewise by having one of his four characters, Bob Jones (Tracy Letts, who nails this role as if he wrote it himself) be affected with a medical condition (Harriman Leavey Syndrome) that affects his attention span, his focus and his patience. Eno inflicts another character with a brain-and-body-addling event later on. But the standard spousal interplay which consumes most of The Realistic Joneses is damning enough.
It’s a tough job, writing a play about stagnancy and complacency and the inability to communicate. Harder still to act it, yet this cast is well up to the challenge. Glenn Fitzgerald is a bundle of uncomfortably restrained energy, the very model of the prematurely settled and frustrated homebody, stammering out awkward conversation-starters. Tracy Letts is the older, wiser, wizened and retiring type, falling into comfortable old behaviors while bristling at any remark which touches on his weakening body and mind. Johanna Day is, as she was in the Yale Rep’s world premiere of David Adjmi’s The Evildoers in 2008 and in the Broadway production of Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, remains the consummate small-ensemble player. Charged with reacting to her castmates both comically and tragically, she maintains an even tone which enhances the whole production. Parker Posey, whose participation will undoubtedly boost ticket sales thanks to her indie-film star status, is much more than star-casting. Posey’s proven herself on the legit stage umpteen times. Here, she takes the closest thing the play has to an underwritten role and creates someone as full-bodied and intriguingly unpredictable as any of the others. As Pony, Posey could have gone down the easy road of ditziness and cluelessness, but she opts for a more mature, more openly curious and involved portrayal.
This is a show that keeps you guessing right up to its faux-tranquil ending. In the best tradition of Beckett, Ionesco and Seinfeld, The Realistic Joneses is about nothing yet signifies everything. What Will Eno does is that’s warmly and loudly appreciated by audiences is make the proceedings funny rather than downbeat. The laughs are steady and, as I’ve suggested, finely wrought. The tricky humor provides a special momentum that a more melodramatic treatment of the old two-couple breakdown can’t match. At a trim 90-minutes with minimal downtime and loads of of chatter, The Realistic Joneses is something worth keeping up with. It values both your time and your intelligence.