NEW YORK—The first thing you should know about “The Realistic Joneses” is that none of the four characters in Will Eno’s play have much more than a nodding acquaintance with reality. The second is that it is quite funny, and you’ll probably enjoy meeting these Joneses so long as you don’t have to live next door to them.
“The Realistic Joneses” is basically a character study of four eccentrics—two couples each of which is named Jones—who talk largely in non sequiturs and whose topics of conversation bounce around like a pinball. This produces laughs, but if there is a point to any of it, it is evasive.
Eno is one of the bright young playwrights who first came to attention in 2005 with “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and whose “Middletown” won the Horton Foote Award. “The Realistic Joneses” was first staged at Yale Rep in 2012 and landed on Broadway last night with a fine cast that can almost make sense of the Joneses’ disjointed exchanges.
There are certain Beckettian qualities to parts of “The Realistic Joneses,” but there is little sense of direction in them. What emerges is more a series of one-liners in brief scenes rather than a play with a cohesive absurdist theme.
The lights come up on a garage sale of a set with the first Jones couple, Jennifer and Bob, sitting on their patio talking about whatever pops into their heads. Jennifer remarks on the beautiful night and that the house needs painting. Bob, a grump, snipes at everything she says. There are hints that Bob is not well and is having trouble remembering things.
Enter Jones couple number two, John and Pony, who have been hovering in the dark listening in on Jennifer and Bob’s squabbling. They’ve just moved into a house down the street and have brought a bottle of wine to introduce themselves. Before that first encounter is over, it will be a tossup as to which pair of the Joneses will end up being the neighbors from hell.
Perhaps the most interesting of Eno’s characters is Pony, who is also the most scatterbrained and who is brilliantly played by Marisa Tomei. By her own admission, she is a “totally unreliable person filled with terror.” She wants to change her life. “Maybe I should go to medical school or get my hair done or something,” she says.
Tomei is a master at delivering ditzy one-liners, and in one of the play’s longest speeches, in which Pony leaps from one disconnected thought to another, she almost stops the show.
Tracy Letts, who as a playwright knows a thing or two about angry men, is acerbic as Bob. Frightened at what his disease is doing to him, he takes it out on whoever is at hand, but mainly on his long suffering wife, Jennifer. “I’m scared,” he confesses at one point. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. When I was little I thought I would be a good person.”
Michael C. Hall is no less enigmatic as John, who is also suffering from a mysterious malady and has visions of being outside himself. He tries to connect to the others, but it’s a stretch for him. “Sometimes I forget stuff,” he says to the increasingly forgetful Bob, then adds, “Sometimes I remember stuff.”
Toni Collette as Jennifer is the most normal of the quartet of Joneses, though she has a penchant for pouring out her innermost secrets, including the details of Bob’s health problems, to strangers. Yet she is the anchor of sanity to which the other three are moored.
Not a lot happens in the course of the play, ably directed by Sam Gold. There are flirtations, possibly even consummations, between the different partners. There are confrontations and confessions. There are a couple of deaths—a squirrel early on and, offstage, a diner in a restaurant.
But at the end, it is hard to know what Eno wants his audience to take away from “The Realistic Joneses.” All four characters frequently gaze at the night sky. Perhaps they are hoping to find the answer to their collective confusion up there in the stars.
“The Realistic Joneses”
149 West 45th Street
Tickets: 855-730-0201 or visit boxoffice.broadway.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: July 6
Wilborn Hampton is an author and theater critic.
Reprinted with permission by Huffington Post.