What can I say about Will Eno’s intriguing, amusing, frustrating The Realistic Joneses, without revealing too much? I can tell you what it’s about – well, sort of. A middle-aged married couple (Jennifer and Bob Jones), living in an isolated mountain town, are visited by their younger neighbors (Pony and John) who are also married and also named Jones (no relation). There isn’t what you’d call instant chemistry between them – Pony and John are friendly but strange, and the plainspoken Bob makes it pretty clear he’d be happy to see them leave. But over hours and days, an oddly symbiotic relationship develops.
Eno’s best-known play is called Thom Pain (based on nothing), and I’m sure many audiences and critics will see a lot of nothing here, too. There certainly isn’t much in the way of action. But Eno isn’t really focused on concrete events – he’s far more interested in the peculiar, often contradictory ways people think about their own lives and the world around them. If there is a central tone here, it’s ambivalence.
I suppose my own ambivalence as a critic could be seen as a mirror of Eno’s. The Realistic Joneses is a series of interactions and conversations. Sometimes, I was enchanted by the odd, off-kilter dialogue, simultaneously touchingly openhearted and bluntly inarticulate. At other times, I lost patience.
Is there more to The Realistic Joneses than meets the eye? Or less? I can’t predict how others will see it, but I for me it’s a little of both. What’s very clear is that Eno has an exceptional gift for capturing the revealingly inconsistent way people express themselves. He leans a little too hard on it here – but it’s often effective, and I can certainly see why actors love to do his plays. But on a larger level, The Realistic Joneses feels like an amalgam of clever (and occasionally profound) moments that don’t fully gel into something cohesive.
I’m also not convinced that this production, snazzy and starry as it is, realizes the play’sfull potential. Some of director Sam Gold’s best moments occur in the transitions between scenes, where the tall trees that frame David Zinn’s terrific set take on an ominous luminescence, and the world suddenly seems an eerie and unknowable place.
But the scenes themselves are pitched for high comedy. Tracy Letts (Bob) gives the most accomplished performance – he lands the jokes, but more important, the painful uncertainty beneath them is always visible.
As for Toni Collette (Jennifer), Marisa Tomei (Pony), and Michael C. Hall (John) – they are, of course, famous, and their celebrity will undoubtedly help at the box office. But here, though they nail their laughs, they seem to be recycling bits and pieces of previous performances, and while it works on some level – all three are gifted actors, and cleverly cast here – it also undermines the sense of ordinariness that’s essential to the characters. (Frankly, casting Hall as the creepy visitor is too easy – predictably, he got cheers on his entrance from enrapt Dexter fans, and delivered a performance full of that quality of forced enthusiasm he basically trademarked on the show.)
Interestingly, Gold previously directed the premier of The Realistic Joneses at Yale Rep, and I think it’s telling that Letts is the only holdover from that production. The other actors, all very well reviewed, did not have the same celebrity status of their Broadway replacements. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they were better — and specifically, if their relatively anonymity was better for the play. But this cast will keep the show running. Commercially, fame has its advantages – artistically, it has its costs, too.