On the subway home from The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno's second play this season and now at the Lyceum after a 2012 Yale Repertory Theatre stay, I noticed that the woman seated across from me was also holding a Realistic Joneses playbill. I asked her opinion of what she'd just seen. She replied, "I liked the acting, but I had no idea what the play was about."
Let me tell you that if anyone wanted a spot-on one-sentence review of Eno's newest work, you couldn't do any better than what she said. But we professional assessors are expected to say more. So I will, although I'd love to let it go at the friendly woman's comment.
At the start of the work, Jennifer Jones (Toni Collette, not impersonating the famous Oscar-winning movie star of that name) and Bob Jones (Tracy Letts, not impersonating golfer Bobby Jones) are bickering in the backyard of their home in, as the program notes, "a smallish town not far from some mountains."
After some time and some tense exchanges, new-to-the-area Pony Jones (Marisa Tomei) and John Jones (Michael C. Hall) arrive with a bottle of wine wrapped in shiny silver paper and impose themselves on the first pair of Joneses, an imposition Bob clearly likes less than Jennifer.
What follows in this scene and several subsequent scenes--taking place on a David Zinn set meant to represent both Jones residences and a supermarket, et cetera--are various combinations of the Joneses talking in unrelenting non sequiturs about themselves and their relationships to one another.
When Pony (her father came up with the nickname, she reports) and John are about to leave towards the end of the first meeting, she spots a dead squirrel, which Bob disposes of in a handy trashcan. At some point during the work's intermission-less 90 minutes the information is revealed that both Bob and John are suffering from a rare malady, the medical term for which goes by so quickly I missed it.
Those events represent what could be called the action in a play that is actually brimming with non-action. At times, it appears that Bob may have some interest in Pony. At other times, it seems John has eyes, or at least hands, for Jennifer and that she may be contemplating reciprocation. But these are just vague hints cropping up during the proliferation of conversations that go nowhere, because as Jennifer, Bob, Pony and John keep jabbering, they're mostly jabbering at cross-purposes.
Occasionally, the offbeat give-and-take can be amusing. There's a moment when Bob is nagging at Jennifer, where she says, "Do not even start." Then, following a brief silence, she adds, "I'm waiting." John, who's full of left-field remarks, gets to say, "Ice cream is a dish best served cold."
Nevertheless, after, for instance, too many of John's opinions uttered, then recanted, then revised, then recanted again, it's difficult for a spectator--here I mean me--not to start wracking his brain for what in the name of illuminating entertainment playwright Eno aiming at.
There's the title, which does conjure the old phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." And here are two sets of Joneses. Is one pair trying to keep up with the other while vice versa is going on? Better yet, is Eno having his joke on the very idea of keeping up with people who by their very chatter can't be kept up with and, more pointedly, aren't worth keeping up with.
Or wait, here's another possibility. The play starts with a middle-aged couple harping at each other late-ish one night. Suddenly, a younger couple pushes through their bushes to interrupt them. She's flighty and he's makes a point of being loosely charming. Does this sound familiar, all you theater lovers? Is Eno serving himself very personal laughs by deconstructing Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And don't forget Letts was in that drama's last revival.
Maybe, just maybe Eno is intrigued by the failure of words. Maybe that's his target. There's definitely mention of the problem when communications between and among these verbose, if ultimately inarticulate, Joneses lob their words at each other and miss the mark. If so, the apercu isn't new. Its much earlier manifestation came to be called "Theater of the Absurd." Possibly Eno is indulging himself in something like Theater of the Post-Absurd and expecting the rest of us to appreciate it.
Perhaps it's a bit of all the above. Nonetheless, there's got to be more to it, or otherwise, he has only enough inspiration--if it can be called that--for a short sketch. Maybe that's not a worry to him. Only a month and a few days back, his intermission-less 80-minuter The Open House bowed at Playwrights Horizons.
In that one a dysfunctional family to beat all dysfunctional families dysfunctions for much of the allotted time. At that one I was thinking, initially, "Okay, he's sending up the all-too-common dysfunctional family play. Nice idea." But I was also thinking it's a nice idea that's only worth a 10-minute skit. Wouldn't you know, however, that Eno found a twist causing me to reconsider my conclusion? I eventually decided The Open House was worth a 20-minute skit.
Still, if I can't bring enlightenment to a discussion of The Realistic Joneses, Eno can. Here he is talking about his intentions with Playbill's Mervyn Rothstein, "I had questions about the absolute fact of death looming there that we are very happy to ignore--how does that quietly and constantly make its pressure felt in our dealings with each other, in relationships and love and things like that?"
So that's what he means to convey through his incomprehensible, although sometimes tickling, colloquies. If so, it's not working for my subway-car acquaintance, and it's not working for me, either. His premise is far too obscure.
Under Sam Gold's direction, the alphabetically billed Collette, Hall, Letts and Tomei are collectively giving it their best shot. Unfortunately their best is not good enough. The Realistic Joneses from the highly regarded (though not necessarily by me) Will Eno is an example of that wise old saying, "There's less here than meets the eye."