Will Eno has much to say about life in the 21st century and a deft way of saying it in The Realistic Joneses, a play which premiered on Broadway in 2014 (in a production directed by Sam Gold) to rave reviews. The same could be said of director David Denson’s production which runs through April 10 at WaterTower Theatre as part of the Discover series.
“We’re Joneses too!” Pony Jones, played by Martha Harms, announces to her new neighbors Bob and Jennifer Jones, James Crawford and Diana Sheehan, respectively, soon after The Realistic Joneses begins. The adorable (and young) Pony and her husband John, Justin Locklear, who share a surname with their new (and older) neighbors, have just moved into the neighborhood and it looks suspiciously like we’re in for yet another couple vs. couple theatrical showdown.
But instead of just another in the line of relationship dramas we’ve become accustomed to on the American stage, what unfolds is one of the most fascinatingly complex character studies in modern theater.
Fascinating because the character we’re watching in Eno’s play is modern man him (or her)self, in all of his indecision, infantilization, and often unnamed sorrows embodied to devastating effect in the four characters of the play.
The play is simple, over the course of the hour-and-a-half we watch the four characters of Eno’s play as they go about their lives, mostly glimpsing the two couples as they come into contact with the other, the better to illustrate that not only do they not know each other, these characters don’t know themselves.
John, for example, is funny. Too funny and too honest. “It’s funny,” he actually says to Jennifer in a slightly uncomfortable meeting at the grocery store, “You want this conversation to end but I want it to keep going.” Locklear plays John as complicated as he should. He’s funny in his nonsensical ramblings and refusal to cooperate with societal expectations, but something is just a little off. Is he aware of his awkwardness? In love with it? Exploiting it? Locklear brilliantly makes his audience doubt John’s self-assuredness despite his character’s seemingly impenetrable façade of self-deprecation and humor.
Bob, whom Crawford plays disaffected and coldly, the opposite of nearly every other character in the play, is emotionally indecipherable for the audience. Is his inability to engage with or show affection for either his wife or his neighbors due to a fear of intimacy? A side effect of the nerve disease from which we learn he is suffering? Or does he see through the others and their useless and half-hearted attempts at real interactions? Does he know something we don’t?
On the other end of out of touch is Pony, whom Harms imbues with a naiveté that would be charming if it weren't so eerily close to denial. When she encounters tragedy, all Pony can think of is how she wishes she were at home watching TV with John. Her character is a walking critique of the terrifyingly modern predicament of feeling perpetually as though you are performing, pretending to be something you’re not, and that no one could be. “You know what’s scary?” she asks John. “To think that you and I aren’t the greatest love story in the world.”
"We’re sort of just throwing words at each other," Jennifer says early in the play, a perfect encapsulation of Eno’s dialogue throughout. Sheehan’s Jennifer is indefatigable in her attempts to forge something that feels real, both with her husband and with her neighbors. She’s the strongest character, the only one who may actually understand what they're missing.
If you’re trying to identify the more realistic Joneses out of the two pairs, good luck. Eno has woven a web of words behind which his characters feel (mostly) safe from reality and the paralyzing fear of taking responsibility for their own lives.
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The Realistic Joneses is a dark comedy which Denson has drenched in sadness thanks to nostalgia-inducing music and thematically appropriate film and television clips separating scenes and a cast remarkably adept at generating the audience’s sympathy. It’s an outrageously funny play, at least until you start second-guessing the appropriateness of your laughter.
While watching this play, I was thinking about how we’re programmed in American theater to watch for tragedy. No matter how light a play begins, we find ourselves waiting for the playwright to poke holes in what we know is only the semblance of tranquility. Everything is not going to be alright. We know this. “They can’t even get history right.”
"I need to tell you something,” John confesses to Pony near the play’s conclusion. She replies, "Do you have to?"
The Realistic Joneses runs through April 10. Tickets and more information at watertowertheatre.org.