Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 6, 2014
The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting design by Mark Barton. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei.
I'd love to be able to say that this is a surprise from Eno, but it's not. Though he burst onto the New York scene nine years ago with the absorbingly original Thom Pain (based on nothing), in which one man's fractured and disorienting monologue revealed everything about his view of the world (and its view of him), in recent years Eno has struggled to prove he's a serious writer rather than a congenital kicker of dead horses. Middletown, Title and Deed, and The Open House (the last only a month ago) have all pointed to someone of obvious natural talent who's unable or unwilling to either devise a fresh dramatic voice as each new piece demands it, or (even worse) draw a distinction between cleverness and character.
The Realistic Joneses is nothing more than another link in that chain. Yes, it's Eno's most accessible work to date, but that's strictly on the superficial level of its subject: two couples, both with the last name Jones, who are at different points along the paths of the husbands coping with the same terminal disease. Remote as ever, however, are genuine emotions, to say nothing of the hope that this barely structured lunacy will during its endless 95-minute running time cohere into something relevant beyond the boundaries of the proscenium.
Various pairings and reconfigurations follow, as everyone tries to better understand their circumstances: John, uncertain and conflicted about the future, is attracted to Jennifer's quiet strength; Bob sees Pony's theological spirit as the balm to his own inexpressible ache; and the men and women equally bond within their shared situations of being unable to share. By about the midway point, you receive the impression that there's a chance this will resolve into a tender and universal examination of what it means to live and die in a world that, even at its simplest, we barely understand.
Uh, no. Eno, doing what he always does, tries to jump into the issue by tiptoeing around it, substituting vagary (and often insanity) of language for tackling a topic directly. But, eventually, it becomes impossible to learn more about someone by discovering nothing about them, and even after he reaches that point Eno does not abandon his approach for one that better reflects the agonies that are festering away inside these people, just longing for escape. If anything, he intensifies it, but the effect is not to isolate the characters' innate hopelessness but rather isolate us from them.
I defy you, for example, to discern the difference between these jokes, one from the first scene and one from the last scene. First there's this:
Jennifer: Something is flowing through us. I like that.
And then there's this:
Bob: Remember the night I was, um(he cries out in pain and adjusts himself in his chair). That's better.
Or, for that matter, between this:
Pony: I wish I was wearing a sweater.
Bob: They had a pancake breakfast this morning.
Every single Eno play contains this kind of comedy, and every single character in those plays as seen in New York to date has spoken with this identical archly disconnected comic patois. Broadway audiences interested in movie stargazing may not have been exposed to previous Eno productions at DR2, the Vineyard, or the Signature Center, so it may be new to them. But if you've seen any of Eno's previous showsany of themit won't be new to you. Regardless, it's all fake and false, and falsity without a focus and goal is antithetical to powerful theatre.
The problem is not with the director, Sam Gold, who's established himself as the go-to interpreter for plays that are outwardly about nothing but actually about everything (most notably those of Annie Baker), and does everything he can to mold serenity from this nonsense. Nor is it with the designers (David Zinn on sets, Kaye Voyce on costumes, Mark Barton on lights, Leon Rothenberg on sound), who've created an intentionally disjointed production to further separate us from our concepts of perception just as Eno does.
Nor is it even really with the actors, though it's a less-than-inspired group. Only Collette, returning to Broadway an unthinkable 14 years after her brilliant star turn in The Wild Party, balances the prevailing psychological weirdness with a naturalistic honesty that forces her scenes (or at least her portions of her scenes) into something recognizably, potently real. Hall and Tomei, though a likable pair, can't futz around their lines enough to pretend they have depth. And though Letts, who won a 2013 Tony for his George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has a firm grasp of the crumbling Bob, he spends more of his time stumbling around the writing's rhythms than he does rounding out what should be a complex person.
For him to be more, though, Bob would need to crammed with specifics and not, like those around him, just a general-purpose gag dispenser. The good news about this play, which premiered (with Letts in the same role) at the Yale Repertory Theatre two years ago, is that it shows Eno isn't averse to tackling the deeper concerns his earlier plays eschewed. But when he mires everyone he writes in the same pool of self-consciously quirky linguistic gunk, that hardly matters. That makes The Realistic Joneses as painful for the audience as Bob and John's disease is to themthe only way this dire evening is relatable, and not one that even former Eno fansyours truly includedshould want to celebrate.