By: David Sheward
"Words don’t do it for me anymore," says John, one of four characters with the same last name in Will Eno’s absurd
ist comedy-drama The Realistic Joneses. Unfortunately, he could be describing this audience member as well as himself. Eno has a unique way with dialogue. Non-sequiturs pop out, interspersed with oddball observations and hilarious quips. But here, as with his earlier works such as Middletown and Oh, the Humanity, the people speaking them aren’t especially compelling and the action doesn’t add up to much.
The play, which marks Eno’s Broadway debut following its production at Yale Repertory Theatre, begins promisingly. In set designer’s David Zinn’s generic backyard settin
g, unhappy suburban couple Jennifer and Bob Jones meet equally miserable John and Pony Jones who have just moved in down the street. The playwright supplies them with sharp banter, expertly delivered by the all-star cast consisting of Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei, and Michael C. Hall. (Letts is the only holdover from the Yale engagement; the other three star names were brought in presumably to boost the box office for this show, which, under normal circumstances, would be playing a limited run in an Off-Broadway company’s season.) "We moved here for the schools," the newcomer Pony states. When asked if they have kids, she responds, "No. John just hates stupid children." That’s the kind of off-kilter, quirky humor that punctuates the initial scene, directed with precision by Sam Gold. As the newbies are about to leave, a dead squirrel is found atop a garbage can. Perhaps a symbol of social decay or maybe just a sight gag.
But nothing develops from there. We learn that both husbands suffer from the same rare neurological disease and it’s tearing the marriages apart. Jennifer and John flirt in the supermarket while, in parallel sequence, Bob and Pony stumble into a brief affair. This theme of dualism is rampant. The couples share a surname, a medical condition, and even furniture as the new guys acquire a cast-off lamp from their counterparts. The pairs are clearly meant to be mirror images of each other, but it’s not clear which are the "realistic" ones. Through all this confusion, the quirky quips keep coming, but they fail to illuminate the characters or their relations. "We’re just throwing words at each," Jennifer complains at one point, and I couldn’t agree more.
Eno offers a vague glimpse of how people react to catastrophic illness in different ways-Bob with resignation, John with confusion-and the playwright seems to want to say something cosmic about the human condition. Too bad it doesn’t get anymore specific than that. The all-star quartet makes the rambling bearable-especially Tomei, who infuses the bewildered Pony with a caffeinated energy, turning on a dime from despair to hysterics. It’s one of the few highlights in this meandering muddle.
April 6-July 6. Lyceum Thetre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $39-135. (212) 239-6200. www.therealisticjoneses.com
Photos: Joan Marcus