by Collin McConnell · April 13, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #72 Collin McConnell looks at The Realistic Joneses now playing at the Lyceum How do we talk to each other? And when things get rough, how do we, really, talk to each other?
"...it just seems like we don't talk.
What are we doing right now? Math?
No, we're -- I don't know -- sort of throwing words at each other."
Such is the question - and painful truth - of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses.
The Joneses - Bob and Jennifer - grapple with Bob's illness, when the Joneses - John and Pony - move in next door, and try their best to be neighborly (but for their lacking social skills, their "best" isn't really all that great). And, it turns out, John has a secret.
The Realistic Joneses is excellent in all regards - from writing, to directing, to acting, to design. Will Eno's play tugs at our perceptions of what is "realistic" and natural with all its wild bandying of words, which Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei, and Michael C. Hall expertly manuever, no matter the curve balls Eno may throw at them. Leon Rothenberg creates for us a soundscape quite realistic to what one would expect to hear in a small town near the mountains (and, occasionally, the unatural sounds of pressure and the unknown sneak in, though no less recognizable, and, perhaps, no less realistic). But it is in the silence and stillness that director Sam Gold does something spectacular - with all the difficulty of "talking" (which carries with it understanding - or, in the case of the Joneses, not understanding), in the silences, Gold manages to gently lift the haze created by the language, subtly revealing the truth of these people.
Gently is key here. I am tempted to say this play is about connection, and about reaching out, because so often here we watch characters trying, though failing - Bob and John both have wonderful moments of trying to apologize or be honest that pass almost unnoticed. But those failures point to something more specific. It is about communication. It is about how we reach out, and, as the opening dialogue suggests, how difficult it can be to just talk.
It is really hard to talk. It's hard, and it's weird. It's really weird. Playwright Will Eno has a way of drawing our attention so sharply to the oddity of language that we cannot help but hear and feel the truth behind what we would like to say is 'strange' or 'unrealistic'. And that's the thing: we really want to say it's strange. Yet, coming out of the theater, one may find there is a strangeness within their speech that went unnoticed before - and then you can't stop hearing it (at least I couldn't). And you cannot unhear it.
But what does this mean? I think it means we have a hard time saying what we mean. Which is a hard thing to say, and which this play says so beautifully in saying it so gently.
The beauty of the play, again, is in its gentleness. And not the "gentleness" one who enjoys "downtown" theater generally might associate with Broadway, but a difficult gentleness, a gentleness that digs under the skin. But then, when it has burrowed deep into us without our noticing, the play calls into question not only our ability to communicate, but our expectations.
So, to bring up, briefly, an interesting point: this play is on Broadway, which is defying a sort of expectation. Broadway, as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of this same play, is mostly a place for repurposed movies and blaring musicals, and not really for daring new plays. And so The Realistic Joneses has the wonderful opportunity to awe audiences with its oddity, perhaps getting many to start hearing the ways which we do - and do not - communicate.
While communication is at the center of all the droll madness, it's not just about communication. It deals with illness, friendship, honesty, and expectations - or rather how expectations are never really lived up to. Moving, marriage, getting sick, dead squirrels. Somehow, life is never what we thought it would be. And that might be ok if we knew how to talk about it. But we don't. So we try. And then we move on.
"Isn't that what people do?"