You know when people first meet and it can be instantly awkward? They talk over each other, make inane comments and sometimes completely miss the point? Well, that pretty much never ends in Will Eno's quirky, existential Broadway debut.
In "The Realistic Joneses," which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, Eno has two couples meet for the first time and makes their interactions so tortured and weird that he seems to be suggesting that language itself is a terrible way for humans to communicate.
"This was fun," one says to the others after the initial meeting. "I mean, not fun, but, definitely some other word." A few scenes later, the same character blurts out, after falling into another of the plays many linguistic eddies: "Words don't really do it for me anymore, anyway."
The cast assembled for this often-puzzling 90-minute play is remarkable: Toni Collette of "United States of Tara," Marisa Tomei of "My Cousin Vinny," Michael C. Hall of "Dexter" and Tracy Letts, the Tony winning playwright and actor.
All make their parts funny and poignant as they try to rise above the soup of lines they've been given. The humor is unconventional and gets tiresome by the second half. Sometimes it feels like a long intellectual version of the old "Who's on First" routine. It may have been more fun to write than see.
Director Sam Gold revels in its bizarreness without letting it get loopy, while David Zinn's cluttered set design — especially with Mark Barton's reliance on backlit lighting — give the show a somewhat eerie look.
Set in a semi-rural town that's never specified, the play presents Tomei as Pony, a sensitive soul who likes nature and wants to start "using dandelions in salads." She's married to John, an oddball repairman who likes collecting pamphlets.
They move in next door to Letts' Bob, an idiosyncratic character who doesn't like that hot-air balloons are in "such bright colors." His wife is Collette's slightly manic Jennifer, who likes to look at the international foods at the grocery store ("It always calms me down, in a sort of churchy way.") All four characters' last name are Jones, hence half the title. As for the "realistic" part, that depends on what's real in your life.
Things that are rotten or breaking at their cores is a theme that seems to run through the play, from broken bags to lamps to careers. One of the characters suffers from a degenerative nerve disease and all four seem to sink further into a physical and mental funk over the play's 12 scenes. Infidelity is hinted at, but causes little ripples. Mostly, the characters simply stare up at the sky, suffering alone.
It's clear that all four hunger for human connection and to be understood, but that simply won't happen. Their language keeps them apart and even the simplest conversations become muddied non-sequiturs.
At one point Jennifer wants to thanks John for talking to her recently. "You made me feel better. And I remembered people can do that. That talking with someone can make you feel better."
To which, John replies: "What if, after you talk, the other person just stares back at you. With nothing in their heart."
Jennifer is aghast: "Are you saying that's what's happening now?"
"No," replies John.
That exchange pretty much sums up this play — funny, but more than a little maddening. Or it's just over our heads. Or maybe under it. Whatever. It's fun. Or maybe not fun, but definitely some other word.
It’s funny how trying to connect with neighbors, spouses, God, whomever, can lead you nowhere.
Will Eno takes that idea and runs with it in “The Realistic Joneses,” an anxious comedy that packs rueful zingers, four first-rate starry performances and — buzzkill time, kids — diminishing returns for the entire second half.
In a woodsy suburb scented by pine trees and the oblique absurdism of Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, two married couples with the same surname get acquainted.
Bob (Tracy Letts) and Jennifer (Toni Collette) are struggling to communicate, caused or exacerbated by his rare — and maybe fatal — illness. He’s angry. She’s over caregiving.
Into their backyard come John (Michael C. Hall) and Pony Jones (Marisa Tomei), energetic new neighbors who’ve arrived uninvited but bearing wine. We eventually find out that John suffers from the same condition as Bob. In a series of short scenes, the duos re-combine and reach out for solace, intimacy, understanding and more.
Between shared monikers and maladies, there’s a funhouse-mirror effect meant to unbalance. But the fuel of the play is quirky dialogue spiked with double-speak, contradictions and non sequiturs.
Such as when rudderless Pony declares: “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.”
Or when John tells Jennifer that he saw her “on the phone, crying, and eating a power bar. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s one sad busy person.’ ”
Beneath the clever lines the air is thick with tension, what with talk of illness, blood, a fetid fridge, a dead squirrel — and the unknown.
Under Sam Gold’s tight direction, the cast is natural and convincing. But three-quarters of an hour into the 95-minute show, the script simply circles without deepening, darkening or clarifying.
Eno, a 2005 Pulitzer finalist for “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” has a unique voice. His dark Off-Broadway fable of family dysfunction, “The Open House,” which wrapped last month, was impressive because it got more interesting when it shifted gears midway.
But in “Realistic Joneses,” his Broadway debut, the engine remains stuck in second. Keeping up with these Joneses quickly loses its appeal.
What powerhouse playwright could possibly lure Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei, Michael C. Hall and Tracy Letts into a show?
Tennessee Williams, maybe, or Arthur Miller.
Try Will Eno.
Until now, his off-Broadway “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and “The Open House,” among others, have shown him to be a wildly divisive writer: Some love his deadpan riffs on language; just as many find him glib and empty.
Yet Sunday night, the Massachusetts native made his Broadway debut with “The Realistic Joneses,” a dark comedy that’s fairly accessible — for Eno (we’re not talking Neil Simon here) — but won’t settle the debate. The show starts off strong before running in circles, leaving you wondering what the point was, exactly.
The play brings together two couples who share the same surname, Jones. Jennifer (Collette) and Bob (Letts) live in a small, semi-rural town. They’re talking on their patio one night when their new neighbors, John (Hall) and Pony (Tomei), come over to introduce themselves. Some wine, some chitchat: It’s all very ordinary.
But nothing’s ever ordinary in Eno’s shows, least of all ordinariness.
His favorite trick is to have the characters take common expressions literally. When Jennifer invites him to sit down, John replies, “I practically invented sitting down. Actually, that’s not true.”
Nobody really talks like these people, creating a surreal disconnect. Despite their casual dress and banal houses and yards, the couples are off-kilter. They’re also distorted-mirror reflections of each other: Both men have the same rare neurological disease, whose side effects include “sensual mortification.”
The very different ways they and their wives deal with their illness consumes most of the play. Bob is in denial, leaving Jennifer in charge of looking after his treatment. John, on the other hand, purposefully leaves the bubbly, if fragile, Pony in the dark.
The only member of the quartet who doesn’t partake in the constant wordplay is Jennifer. Collette does some heavy lifting to fill in Eno’s blanks. You can read deep sadness in the wide planes of her expressive face, in her lost, unfocused eyes.
But there’s only so much Collette can do as the linguistic games wear on.
“There’s so much crap in the world. Stupid crap and pain,” Bob says. “Now where was I going with that?”
Damned if I know.
Plays as funny and moving, as wonderful and weird as “The Realistic Joneses,” by Will Eno, do not appear often on Broadway. Or ever, really. You’re as likely to see a tumbleweed lolloping across 42nd Street as you are to see something as daring as Mr. Eno’s meditation on the confounding business of being alive (or not) sprouting where only repurposed movies, plays by dead people and blaring musicals tend to thrive.
Broadway has long been a place inhospitable to the truly active currents of contemporary theater, so the opening of Mr. Eno’s play at the Lyceum Theater on Sunday night, in a production insured against instantaneous death (one hopes) by the presence of a few name stars — Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei, alongside the less famous but no less gifted Tracy Letts — is an occasion worth celebrating.
And I hope the word “weird” doesn’t scare you off: Mr. Eno’s voice may be the most singular of his generation, but it’s humane, literate and slyly hilarious. He makes the most mundane language caper and dance, revealing how absurd attempts at communication can be. He also burrows into the heart of his characters to reveal the core of their humanity: the fear and loneliness and unspoken love that mostly remains hidden beneath the surface as we plug away at life, come what may.
An awful lot, or a lot of awful, may be in store for the characters in “The Realistic Joneses,” which is easily his most accessible play (others include the Pulitzer Prize-finalist “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and “Middletown”). It has been ushered onto Broadway with a gentle hand by the director Sam Gold, who allows his terrific cast to find its own way into the twisting grooves of Mr. Eno’s writing.
The play opens on a bucolic tableau that finds Bob and Jennifer Jones (Mr. Letts and Ms. Collette) idling through an evening at the picnic table in their backyard, exchanging nothing-much conversation that carries an undercurrent of unease.
“It just seems like we don’t talk,” Jennifer says, after Bob has dodged her attempts to turn the conversation into serious channels.
“What are we doing right now, math?” Bob replies, with an edge in his deadpan.
“No, we’re — I don’t know — sort of throwing words at each other,” his wife says.
A rustling in the garbage cans signals the arrival of the new neighbors, John (Mr. Hall) and Pony (Ms. Tomei), who bring a festive-looking bottle that, tellingly, remains unopened. They share the same last name and have come to this corner of the world because, as the bubbly Pony explains: “I always wanted to live in one of these little towns near the mountains. So one night, he comes home and literally just says, literally — I forget what you said exactly.”
“Just, something about moving to one of these little towns near the mountains,” John helpfully replies.
When Bob goes in search of glasses, Jennifer impulsively reveals the reason for their own move to the town: Bob has a degenerative disease, and a leading doctor in the field happens to live here. The treatments are experimental, and the prognosis isn’t rosy.
Suddenly embarrassed at divulging so much to strangers, Jennifer says sheepishly, “I’m sorry, I just kind of blurted that all out.”
John says: “That’s all right. That’s what separates us from the animal. You never hear animals blurting things out. Unless they’re being run over by a car or something.”
The disjointed push and pull of Mr. Eno’s dialogue is not easy to master: He emphasizes the way in which we so often do throw words at one another, although most of us don’t have the arsenal of curveballs that, say, John does. You may come out of this play hearing a new strangeness — and perhaps a lunatic beauty — in the way a casual conversation can unfold, or at least wishing that your interactions held the entrancing oddity of Mr. Eno’s characters’.
The actors slip into its herky-jerky tempos with no apparent effort. I saw the play at its premiere at Yale Repertory Theater, with a mostly different foursome (only Mr. Letts remains), and feared that the necessity of casting stars for a Broadway run would foul up the works. It has not, thanks in part to Mr. Gold, who has become a consummate director of adventurous new writing for the theater.
Mr. Hall may be considered a first among equals, if only because his character, who harbors a secret from his wife that he reveals to Jennifer, has the most entertaining non sequiturs. Having appeared in the cable series “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter,” Mr. Hall certainly is at home riding the currents of anxiety in Mr. Eno’s play. But his performance is most rewarding for its buoyancy, the manner in which Mr. Hall imbues his character’s despair with an offhand lightness of touch, as if a festering sore were just a scratch.
Mr. Letts, a Tony winner last year for his hair-raising performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” brings a laconic yearning to Bob, who has chosen to confront the fact of his illness by ignoring it. A scene in which Bob steals up to Pony and John’s house in the middle of the night, and the two men exchange moderately hostile chitchat as they contemplate the night sky (“No, I’m looking at this part,” John insists, “you look over there”), is among the evening’s finest and funniest.
Ms. Collette exudes a touching, exasperated dignity as Jennifer, who finds herself in unexpected intimacy with John, even as she cannot seem to breach the bulwark that her own husband has marshaled as a defense against his fears. And Ms. Tomei radiates chipper energy as Pony, an air of desperate cheeriness that keeps faltering, like a sparkler sputtering in the dark. (I must, however, pause here to give a shout-out to the sublime Parker Posey, who memorably created this role in New Haven.)
The evolving relationship between the two couples forms the plot, such as it is, of “The Realistic Joneses.” By Mr. Eno’s standards, there’s actually quite a bit of “drama”: There’s that ominous specter of death waiting in the wings, of course, but also the potential of both marriages fracturing as the characters reveal, obliquely, their frustrations and disappointments, with themselves and one another.
David Zinn’s rustic-suburban set looks great on the Lyceum’s stage, with its soaring black backdrop somehow suggesting the cosmic. The sound design of Leon Rothenberg, with a hooting owl and a night chorus of crickets, echoes that feeling, of the immensity of the natural world cradling the characters.
But don’t come to the play expecting tidy resolutions, clearly drawn narrative arcs or familiarly typed characters. “The Realistic Joneses” progresses in a series of short scenes that have the shape and rhythms of sketches on “Saturday Night Live” rather than those of a traditional play. (Most are followed by quick blackouts.) And while the Joneses — all four of them — have all the aspects of normal folks, as their names would suggest, they also possess an uncanny otherness expressed through their stylized, disordered way of communicating.
But for all Mr. Eno’s quirks, his words cut to the heart of how we muddle through the worst life can bring. As Jennifer says to John, recalling a seriously strange encounter they had in the grocery store: “You were funny and weird, and you made me feel better. And I remembered people can do that. That talking with someone can make you feel better.”
So can eavesdropping on people talking, which is what you might call the theater. For all the sadness woven into its fabric, “The Realistic Joneses” brought me a pleasurable rush virtually unmatched by anything I’ve seen this season.
Ah, a quiet summer night in a small town near some mountains. Ah, the crickets, the vast dark sky, the faraway hoot of an owl. And the dead squirrel on the deck and the bad smell coming from the fridge.
In "The Realistic Joneses," the world is familiar and, then again, very scary. It's also weird and cruel and profound in all sorts of unexpected places -- as sad as life but a whole lot funnier.
Provocative playwright Will Eno, whose dry and odd work has tended to cause the theatrical equivalent of fistfights Off-Broadway, has come to Broadway with a macabre and melancholy yet strangely delightful comedy. Directed by Sam Gold with expert ominous playfulness, the 95-minute domestic mystery has a terrific quartet of famous actors and a bit more palpable heart than usual. Still, it is a relief to report that Eno's daggers have not been dulled for commercial consumption.
That first evening, the Joneses -- Jennifer (Toni Collette) and husband Bob (Tracy Letts) -- are sitting on their patio. He is detached and sullen, suffering, we soon learn, from a rare degenerative nerve disease. She tries, futilely, to get him to communicate.
Enter the other Joneses -- Pony (Marisa Tomei) and John (Michael C. Hall) -- who just rented a house nearby. They are as gabby and giddy as the older couple is subdued. Pretty Pony is almost annoying in her adorableness, zigzagging subjects and moods on hairpin turns. John -- like the playwright -- enjoys messing with people and with words. The banter feels coy, until, suddenly, it does not.
In a succession of brief scenes, separated by unpredictable blackouts, the Joneses learn they are not as different as they appear. David Zinn's simple yet ingenious set moves the action sideways from the older couple's sliding patio doors to the interior of the interlopers' kitchen, from a chance meeting in a supermarket to a wonderful sight gag about a late-night encounter with a security- system motion detector.
At its most basic, the play can be reduced to a drama about caregivers and the different ways people deal with illness and mortality. But much like work by Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett, Eno's closest forbearers in existential absurdity, there's a challenge in keeping up with these Joneses. As John says, "This was fun -- I mean, not fun, but some other word." Indeed.
For those who were lucky enough to catch Tracy Letts' searing performance as George in last season's revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the first scene of The Realistic Joneses (* * * ½ out of four) — the new Will Eno play that brings the ferociously talented actor/writer back to Broadway, alongside Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei — carries a titillating sense of déjà vu.
Letts is cast here as Bob Jones, a middle-aged man suffering from what his wife, Jennifer (Collette), will later identify as "an irreversible and degenerative nerve disease." What is clear from the start is that Jennifer and Bob are going through a rough patch, in their marriage and in life; both exude weariness, though Bob's is tinged with the sort of acerbic edge that makes you wonder if, like Woolf's George, he'll explode at some point.
He doesn't, quite, but Joneses, which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, makes its own stinging, sometimes wistful observations about the challenges we face as individuals and in relationships. As in Woolf, we meet another couple: John and Pony, whose surname also happens to be Jones. They are Bob and Jennifer's new neighbors, and they ingratiate themselves to the other, warier Joneses through what initially seems like sheer force of will.
But there is more to the goofy John, played with robust wryness by Hall, and Tomei's sweetly dizzy Pony than meets the eye. Using the intriguingly offbeat dialogue that is his hallmark — full of non sequiturs and blunt but often contradictory remarks that both evoke natural speech and lend a slightly surreal quality — Eno draws his four characters to each other in ways that, however predictable, movingly emphasize the ultimate commonality of the human condition.
"There's a lot to not know, isn't there?" John says to Jennifer at one point, while she's describing the frustrating mysteries of Bob's disease — which, we will learn, John has special reason to be curious about. Another scene finds their spouses alone together. "I think John wants to take things to the next level," Pony tells Bob, who responds, "You're married." "There's still levels," she points out.
Mortality itself is a key concern, and not just in relation to illness. Both couples are apparently childless, and there are references to schools and fairs — to an outside world that seems to be getting on with life, as the Joneses tread water and try desperately to stay afloat.
Joneses isn't a downer, though, and director Sam Gold and his excellent cast ensure that its humor and poignance are equally served. Predictably, there's no neat resolution; the play ends with all four of its characters in a relatively upbeat mood, yet not any surer how things will turn out. But that's life for you, isn't it?
It’s the words, stupid. That’s what Will Eno keeps telling us in his hypnotically quirky plays. What separates the men from the beasts? The words. What saves humanity from extinction? The words. What keeps us from killing ourselves? The words. So what happens when language starts slipping away? That’s the existential nightmare that this madly interesting scribe depicts in “The Realistic Joneses.” Operating under the gold standard set by helmer Sam Gold, the marvelous cast — Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, and Marisa Tomei — savors every syllable as if it were their last.
When first sighted, sitting under the unseen stars in the backyard of their nondescript house in some rural backwater, Bob and Jennifer Jones, the middle-aged couple played by Letts and Collette, seem like a perfectly ordinary, if rather bored married couple. Jennifer’s mild grievance — “It just seems like we don’t talk” — and Bob’s impatient response — “What are we doing right now? Math?” — is the kind of ritualistic exchange between long-term partners that makes them seem completely normal.
Ritual, in an Eno play, is the way we get on with the business of living our lives without calling down the wrath of the gods. Routine conversations and habitual social routines are so essential to survival that when some non-conformist in Eno’s universe refuses to get with the program, as happens in his play “Middletown,” he’s likely to be shot dead.
Aside from making charcoal sketches on the walls of our caves, language is the way we pass along these rituals. But Bob’s memory seems to be slipping and he’s beginning to lose his words. So Jennifer’s insistence that they discuss the matter is the first hint that something unspoken, but bigger than a breadbox, is looming over their heads. “But we communicate pretty well, even without words,” she says, as if that bald-faced lie were true.
The subject is temporarily shelved when the younger couple played by Hall and Tomei (and also named Jones) who have moved into the house next door pay an impromptu and quite awkward visit. John Jones is a bit of a nerd and his wife Pony (that is, indeed, her name) is a total flake, so simple stupidity might account for their inept social skills.
Letts plays crusty-old-guy to perfection, and his deadly droll line readings of Bob’s rude responses to the younger pair’s clumsy conversational overtures are terribly unkind, but also terribly funny. So are Collette’s deadpan efforts as Jennifer to mask her own amusement. When John announces he’s discovered a company that prints transcripts of audio-books, the incredulous tone of Collette’s comeback — “Wouldn’t that just be the book?” — smartly conveys Jennifer’s attitude toward her new neighbors.
Unfortunately, this kind of cutting wit, snappily delivered by a couple of certifiable stars like Collette and Letts, lulls the aud into thinking they have walked into a brittle comedy of manners. (Cue the patters of applause for every damned laugh line and, less plausibly, the knee-jerk impulse to clap after every scene, however brief.) Eno does write comical lines and witty exchanges, but his humor is not the reassuring stuff of sitcoms. It’s the desperately funny chitchat of political prisoners awaiting the hangman.
Once the dead squirrel makes its appearance, however, the humor darkens and things turn eerie at the Jones house. At both the Jones houses, actually, since David Zinn’s expansive set draws back from the comforting blackness of the backyard to take in both rather sterile homes, and, when Mark Barton’s austere lighting design allows, opens up to the frightening white infinity of the theater’s blank back wall.
Whatever the exact origin of this mysterious neurological disease nibbling away at Bob’s memory, along with his motor skills, it seems to have infected John as well. (“John and words — forget about it,” Pony says.) And before long, both men are stumbling around the stage looking for their lost thoughts and the words to express them, or possibly hide behind them.
John, who thinks that “horsing around” is the way to keep painful realities at bay, eventually admits that “words don’t really do it for me anymore.” Time and again, though, he becomes almost eloquent in his attempts to shield Pony from the swift progression of his disease. “People getting moody and going blind — it’s just not really her thing,” he sweetly explains. Hall is a whiz at doing nice-sweet-guy with a kinda-strange-and-very-sad vibe, and he brings a lot of nuance to a role that could easily be manhandled into cuteness.
Tomei shares Hall’s facility for subtle character shading. Her Pony is every bit the airhead she initially appears to be, but behind her vapid game face is another, deeper intelligence that knows — and dreads — what’s happening to John and to their marriage. ”I’m taking these little breaths, so no one notices me,” she says, which, like a lot of dumb things she says, sort of makes sense.
The two thesps are pretty perfect in a “game,” actually, a very moving exchange, in which Pony and John tease each other with their deepest fears. “Terror,” “Abandonment” and “Loneliness” bring on much merriment. But in the end, no matter how hard they pretend to be real, these Joneses, like their neighbors, only manage to be “realistic.”
The all-star cast not only brings out character nuances that would be lost in a less savvy production, they might even manage to keep the house open for much if not most of the show’s limited run. But word is bound to get out that Eno’s tragi-comic sensibility is hard to digest for anyone who hasn’t already acquired a taste for it. So, while there’s an air of mystery about this piece, the biggest mystery is what this downtown show is doing on Broadway in the first place.