The Realistic Joneses
On Broadway, absurdism is a dish best served by big celebrities.
A giant black void dominates the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. A trio of glass doors opens at the center of that void. Downstage, cheap furniture litters a synthetic lawn. On either side, groups of tall coniferous trees barely mask the brick walls that encase this simultaneously ridiculous and bleak space. With his Broadway-debut play, The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno seems to be saying, this is your life: a big, meaningless, tacky nothing in the middle of the woods.
Eno is best known for his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Thom Pain (based on nothing), a confrontational monologue that had critics enraptured and many members of the audience scratching their heads. A play based on nothing? Sure, it worked for Samuel Beckett, but a 21st-century playwright? Well, it turns out that the Internet and mobile technology have not endowed our lives with any more intrinsic meaning than existed in the mid-20th century. The Realistic Joneses is like Waiting for Godot transplanted to modern suburbia. The language and tone may seem heightened, but it is actually all uncomfortably real.
Jennifer (Toni Collette) and Bob Jones (Tracy Letts) are a middle-aged couple living in a smallish town near the mountains. One day, their new neighbors, a younger couple named John (Michael C. Hall) and Pony (Marisa Tomei), come over to introduce themselves. Their last name is also Jones (no relation). A series of seemingly random scenes transpires between different pairings of Joneses, occasionally all four: Jennifer and John have an awkward encounter in the supermarket; Jennifer tries to take Bob to the doctor; Bob and Pony chat at the picnic table (John assumes they're sleeping together); everyone plans to go to the fair.
Eno is a master of witty non sequiturs: "Ice cream is a dish best served cold," John sagely advises Bob as they kill time in the backyard. These lines seem absurd and random, but one gets the sense that they have an air of wisdom about them within the world of the play. Is such faux-profundity the lubricant that keeps the gears of our quotidian lives churning forward?
As we learned in Broadway's last absurdist outing, the repertory productions of No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot that starred Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, it takes very talented actors to make an evening of nothing interesting to watch. The Realistic Joneses has that: Collette (Showtime's United States of Tara) brings real emotional stakes to Jennifer. Hall (best known for Showtime's Dexter) lends a smart-ass and slightly psychotic edge to John. Letts (last year's Best Actor Tony winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) has a restrained quality that draws out the generational divide between the two couples while simultaneously introducing the looming specter of death (Bob suffers from a rare congenital disease). Tomei (Academy Award winner for My Cousin Vinny) is the resident hypochondriac, exuding a mousy passive-aggression throughout: "I like your voice. But don't touch me or say anything," she tells Bob during a crisis. These are the moments that shape our lives.
While they each have their own personality quirks, this foursome's speech patterns remain relatively consistent. The voice of the author falls out of each of their mouths, second-guessing the moment and acknowledging the absurdity of it all. While this is refreshingly honest, the result is a rather tedious rhythm, a never-ending stream of artfully crafted small talk. You get the overarching point of the play in the first five minutes. Everything else is a variation on the theme, leading to increasingly tepid applause from the audience at the conclusion of each scene.
That's not to say there aren't occasionally revealing variations. For instance, in the final scene, Bob reflects on how awesome life is. One can almost hear the echoes of Waiting for Godot's Estragon saying, "We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?" But as it turns out, the source of Bob's happiness isn't the companionship of his fellow hobo clowns, but some really great meds. If Beckett wrote Godot today, would Vladimir be on Paxil?
Director Sam Gold lovingly stages these moments with the same amount of care and attention one would give to scenes with monumentally high stakes. After all, to the characters onstage, these are life-altering events, no matter how inconsequential they appear from the outside. David Zinn's set looks like it was designed in the cartoonish life-simulation computer game The Sims. It's both random and functional, as if the items were placed for their utility, with little concern for aesthetic beyond a few choice items of kitsch. I suspect the same could be said of most homes in America. In the scene transitions, lighting designer Mark Barton illuminates the theater walls with an eerie glow, reminding us of the artifice of the event.
It's safe to assume that a play as formally challenging as The Realistic Joneses would not appear on Broadway without such a starry cast. Fans of Dexter or United States of Tara looking for a close encounter with their favorite television star might walk away disappointed by its lack of plot. But like in life, it's better to approach this play with no expectations. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you take away.