Saturday, March 26, 2016

"The Realistic Joneses"

The Realistic Joneses
Will Eno

Allison Jean White, James Wagner, Rebecca Watson & Rod Gnapp
Under a massive, darkened sky full of twinkling stars “where you can almost hear the clouds go by” and “in one of those little towns near the mountains,” two neighboring couples sit out in their backyards talking a lot and often not saying very much.  All with the common name of “Jones,” each is like an “Everyman/Everywoman,” expressing the probing questions and deep-felt desires any and all of us has but also blurting out-of-the blue comments that probably few of us ever would say.  Their banter is both a rapid-fire of short phrases batted back and forth as well as periodic pauses where it is unclear if and when someone will speak next.  Surprising insights as well as unintentional non-sequiturs dot their conversations.  More often than not, where those conversations go often results in laughter from somewhere deep in the watching audience.  American Conservatory Theatre presents Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, a play New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described in 2005, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”  The result is an engrossing and enigmatic, sassy and sad, comedic and compassionate look at loneliness and relationship, fear and courage, death and dreams.

The middle-aged Bob and Jennifer (Jones) have new neighbors, younger John and Pony (Jones).  The two couples hang out in their back yards, mostly at night it seems, and begin to spend more and more time together as a group and in various couplings (including eventually some neighborly wife-husband swapping on the side).  Along with last names, the two men share being victims of the Harman Levy Syndrome (“Sounds like a jazz combo,” says one), an increasingly debilitating disease that they all seem to understand, but do not really want to say aloud, will end in sure death.  There is contemplation of the inevitable in wives’ worried glances at husbands and husbands’ blank stares into nowhere; but there is hesitation to confront for long, if at all, the fears gripping them inside.  The horror of one and the fascination of another with a found, dead squirrel that is quickly tossed with a loud thud into a waiting garbage can captures the way death is hanging in the air around them but is quickly passed over as a topic not to be dealt with at this time. 

Their lives are not moving much of anywhere in particular, but there is a journey each is on that appears to be difficult.  Jennifer voices what any one of them could have said of their lives: “I don’t know how everybody else does this.”  Although there is a lot of talking going on, it is unclear how much is being shared.  As Bob says to his wife, “There are a lot of unsaid things between us ... good things.”  Their meetings and greetings are often awkward; relationship does not come naturally.  An unseen magnet pulls them together, but loneliness is always present for each.   Says one to another, “I like your voice, but don’t touch me or say anything,” reflecting the yes/no attitude each shows when considering bridging a connection to another.

Rod Gnapp & James Wagner
The vast sky above both seems to give them some peace of mind while also reflecting just how small and insignificant they really are.  Pony says at one point, “If they get all the big history stuff wrong, what will they say (someday) about us?”  Huge trees that hover above them remind us that it is to nature and forests that playwrights often send troubled souls to seek solace and resolution.  While answers do not necessarily emerge to the questions they seem to be positing about their lives, there is a collective, calm face in the end given to the realism of their situations -- a kind of group sigh of some recognized relief that life is what it is, and now let’s just move on to tomorrow.

Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson are the older Bob and Jennifer; James Wagner and Allison Jean White, the younger John and Pony.  While each performer brings wonderful nuance, quirkiness, and depth of interpretation to the four individuals, their power of performance is actually as an ensemble.  In quartet, trio, and various duet combinations, their conversations amuse, intrigue, and provide some pause – but in wonderfully different ways among the different mixes.  Loretto Greco directs their chamber-like performance with a deft touch that is never over-bearing but always just a bit surprising in what comes next in how Will Eno’s clever dialogues will be delivered.  

Rebecca Watson & Rod Gnapp
Andrew Boyce has created a fabulous set that reflects both the immensity of the universe and the familiarity of homes and backyards that could be any of ours, any where in much of small-town America.  The nighttime and other nature sounds created by David Van Tieghem join with the lighting schemes of Robert Wierzel to create a feel of the outdoors on the large ACT stage.  Brandin Baron pitches in with costumes that are generic enough to be things most of us might wear at some point but also telling of the personalities each character brings to the scene.

That nothing is really resolved in the end of this glimpse into these four lives does not mean that something significant has not happened.  We leave them feeling perhaps a bit more connected with each other than when we met them.  We have laughed, and even they have laughed a few times along the way.  We and they have once again been reminded of our mortality; our need to matter in some way, to someone, before we go; and our realization that in the end, we are just specks in a much grander scheme ... and that is probably OK.  American Conservatory Theatre, Loretta Greco, and this talented cast of four leave us with some chuckles, maybe a tear or two, and some things to go home and gnaw on for awhile about who we are and why we are.

Rating: 4 E

The Realistic Joneses continues through April 3, 2016 at the Geary stage of the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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