Friday, April 18, 2014

Broadway Review: "The Realistic Joneses" by Will Eno at The Lyceum Theatre

Toni Collette as Jennifer & Michael C. Hall as John

Phioto by Joan Marcus

It is not often that the New York Times theater critics gush about a show, but they did just that when reviewing Will Eno's new play, "The Realistic Joneses."  So, I guess I am not being very original in echoing the comments of critics who have gone before me in praising this show. There is much to like about this thought-provoking and laugh-inducing play.

As a playwright, Will Eno is difficult to categorize.  He seems to walk a tightrope between hyper-realism on the one extreme and theater of the absurd on the other end of the spectrum. The result in this case is a play that feels like a series of Second City improv pieces followed by blackouts, or a string of Saturday Night Live skits - if you want to think about SNL in its Golden Age of Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi et al.  The dialogue among the four characters - two couple both named Jones - is often convoluted and full of non sequiturs and interruptions, punctuated with strange rhythms.  The characters often blurt out shocking statements - things most people only think but never say out loud in polite company.

The play works on many levels because the fabric holds together well.  Eno writes with an acerbic and sardonic voice, but with a twinkle in his eye that makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way.  Under the direction of Sam Gold, the four cast members create memorable characters whose chemistry is often awkward (intentionally) but very palpable.

Toni Collette plays Jennifer, who is struggling to help her husband, Bob, cope with a rare degenerative neurological condition. Her job is frustrating because Bob, played brilliantly by Pulitzer Prize-wining playwright Tracy Letts,, is choosing denial as his coping strategy.  He is on medical leave from his job with the local government procuring supplies for the highway department.  The second set of Joneses move in next door and life becomes interesting.  Marisa Tomei is Pony, desperately trying to figure out life and her quirky young husband., John, played by Michael C. Hall.  Like Letts and Collette, Tomei and Hall bring wonderful physical and verbal idiosyncrasies that make their quirky characters breath with authenticity..  The younger Joneses have come to town because John is in the early stages of the same disease that is a ticking time bomb in Bob, and he has sought out the best specialist in the field who offers some hope through experimental treatment.

CMarisa Tomei as Pny & Michael C. Hall as John 

Phioto by Joan Marcus

I tend to see metaphor in everything, so I may be over-reaching in some of my observations. but here goes.  Eno seems to be saying many things beneath the level of the syncopated dialogue and physical awkwardness that hovers as a gray fog over much of the action.
  • The neurological condition with which both Bob and John are afflicted seems to be a metaphor for the four characters' inability to connect with the others in ways that are satisfying.  There are some synapses firing that are not making their intended connections.  Jennifer is lonely because Bob chooses not to be honest with himself or her about his illness.  Michael is isolated from Pony because he is keeping her in the dark about his condition, and she senses that something is wrong and some key ingredient is missing in their lives and in their marriage.
  • As a result of these missed connections, John reaches out awkwardly - in stilted conversation and in bizarre touch - to Jennifer, who is simultaneously perplexed and pleased.  In parallel, Bob and Pony lean on each other to momentarily fill the empty spaces.
  • The set by David Zinn is a brilliant use of the soaring Lyceum stage.  The versatile set doubles as the back yard of Bob and Jennifer, the kitchen of John and Pony, and the parking lot of a grocery store where John and Jennifer share their awkward moment.  The lifelike trees create an almost bucolic and pastoral setting,  A dead squirrel shows up on the verge of the woods.  Eno seems to be saying that things may look safe and cozy, but hidden dangers lurk that could prove deadly.
  • The blackouts that abruptly end each scene reflect the emotional blackouts that each of the four characters experiences throughout the play.
  • John's job is apparently that of a "handy man" or a "Mr. Fix It," but he can't manage to fix anything, much less himself.
  • John and Pony claim and try to repair an old lamp that it turns out has been discarded by Bob and Jennifer.  "One man's junk is another man's treasure."  This aphorism may be true not only of instruments of illumination , but of relationships and of individuals that one may view of "trash" and another as "treasure."
 Tracy Letts as Bob & Marisa Tomei as Pony

Phioto by Joan Marcus

Just which of these Joneses are "realistic"?  They each have something to hide, yet are not averse to blurting out thoughts that "normal" people usually keep to themselves.  Through the device of giving his characters unorthodox speech patterns, Eno throws a harsh light on the banality of much of our everyday conversation and interactions with one another.  That may be his ultimate gift to audiences that see and enjoy this play.  Watching the "Realistic Joneses" struggle to connect with each other may serve to prompt us to be more "Real" in dealing with those in our lives who are important.  Maybe the degenerative disease of being at an emotional distance from those in our lives with whom we strive to connect is a reversible condition if we will only reach out - however awkwardly we may do so.

Like all great comedy, the action in this play blossoms from the soil of tragedy and pathos.  While it makes is laugh, it also makes us think. It would be unrealistic to expect anything less from such a talented creative team.



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