The Realistic Joneses
By the Shattered Globe Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The Joneses of Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses” are two married couples, all naturally names Jones (one couple named Bob and Jennifer Jones and the other Pony and John Jones). The names may be commonplace but after listening to them for 1 hour and 45 uninterrupted minutes, the audience recognizes they have eavesdropped on four average people who express themselves in ordinary language delivered in the most subtly unexpected and quirky manner. The “realistic” Joneses could be called the “different” or “offbeat” Joneses, full of verbal surprises wrapped in the most conversational language. It’s difficult to explain but easy to admire and enjoy in person.
Will Eno has carved a niche for himself in contemporary theater for unorthodox body of work that has impressed many people and sent others home confused or bored. “The Realistic Joneses” is perhaps his most accessible play but viewers who like their narratives clear, their characters easy to love or hate, and everything resolves in a neat final scene wrap-up may be frustrated. There seems to be something to ”get” in the play that is elusive and a little disturbing.
Sifting through Eno’s dialogue, the audience hears that Pony and John have just moved to this small town and as new neighbors, they make an impromptu and not necessarily welcome visit to the ranch-style home of Jennifer and Bob. We learn that Bob is suffering from some rare disease he is trying to ignore, hoping it will just go away. But the man is scared. John has a degenerative disease that may be fatal. They moved to this rural community because a specialist in the disease lives there. John outwardly puts a casual and happy face on his condition.
Pony is a chirpy young lady but she is living on her nerve ends, partly because of her husband’s health problems but her chattering and mood swings suggest some genuine mental health problems. The most “normal” of the four characters is Jennifer, who is fed up with her laconic husband and dysfunctional marriage and her overall dead end life. She is the character audiences will most easily relate to.
Much of the play, especially the first hour, is funny, as the characters repeatedly turn offbeat reactions and exchanges into verbal surprises that blindside the listeners with their unexpected twists and turns of expression. Unfortunately, a giggle-happy claque in the first night audience sounded like they found the dialogue continually uproarious, perhaps as a defense mechanism against dialogue that constantly shifted gears so adroitly. The last half hour turns more serious, as the relationships turn more confrontational and the undercurrents of desperation and fear and loneliness come closer to the surface.
The play is a co-production between Shattered Globe and Theater Wit, with Shattered Globe providing the actors and Theater Wit the theater and the director. The union produces triumphant results. Director Jeremy Wechsler, who has a long history with the playwright, demonstrates the surest of hands in guiding his flawless cast through the shoals of zig-zag emotions and verbal quirks without ever losing control of the characters as realistic human beings and not showcases for Eno’s verbal sleight of hand dexterity.
The ensemble all fits their roles with seamless credibility. First among equals is Joseph Wiens as John, who outwardly appears almost lighthearted in dealing with his disease and his possibly unstable wife (though no more unstable than John himself). Wiens runs the gamut from comic to sad to intimidating without ever losing the thread of his character in all his psychological density.
The honor role continues with Cortney McKenna’s Pony, a character who can be cute but not cutesy but often exudes a desperation that is both pathetic and a little chilling. HB Ward has perhaps the most straightforward character as the gruff Bob, who still exhibits depths of emotion he tries, not always successfully, to submerge. Linda Reiter has been one of the great divas of Chicagoland acting for decades and she plays beautifully in her unhappiness with how her life has turned out. Then other three can retreat at times into their offbeat reactions to the world around them. Jennifer is rooted in a reality that allows her no relief from an unfulfilled life.
The designers are full partners in the success of the production. Jack Magaw has designed a wonderful rustic set with sliding doors that take us from the intimacy of one Jones residence to the other. I presume Magaw is also responsible for the projections of luminous skies and distant mountains that hover over the stage to give the staging a cosmic flavor. The rightness of the physical staging is cemented by Hailey Rakowiecki’s casual costumes and John Kelly’s atmospheric lighting. Christopher Kriz’s’s sound design supplies the necessary natural sounds of owls and other small wildlife.
On stage, “The Realistic Joneses” either works or it doesn’t, depending upon the skill of the director, the command of the actors, and the creativity of the designers. I didn’t find a single false note struck during the evening, not one moment when the play turns silly or willfully obscure. The play weaves an almost otherworldly spell over attentive and sympathetic viewers. I was so caught up in the play scene by scene that bit was only as I left the theater that I recognized what an insightful and sensitive slice of theater I’d just witnessed. One rarely comes into the presence of a production that so effectively meshes the talents of the director, actors, playwright, and designers.
The show gets a rating of
“The Realistic Joneses” runs through March 9 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $24 to $74. Call 773 975 8150 or visit www.shatteredglobe.org or theaterwit.org.