Just open as of last night at ACT, The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno is a sometimes difficult, awkwardly funny, and starkly modern play that delves into the lives of two couples suffering from similar fates. I'll just say now that if you're the sort that prefers no spoilers in your reviews, this review will contain one specific spoiler, but it is not one that will necessarily alter your experience of the play very negatively.
The Realistic Joneses spent several months on Broadway in 2014 with an all-star cast including Tracy Letts (Homeland), Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall (Dexter), and Marisa Tomei, as two couples both named Jones who find each other in a small town near mountains in an unnamed state. Here it's cast, obviously, with lesser known names but also with a key difference the younger Joneses, played by Hall and Tomei, are here played by much younger actors, both clearly in their twenties as opposed to in their forties. While I did not personally see the Broadway production, it's notable because it fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction between the two especially as you see the younger John (James Wagner) flirt lightly with the older Jennifer (Rebecca Watson), who's married to Bob (Rodd Gnapp) who we learn in an early scene is suffering from a rare and seemingly incurable, congenital disease, perhaps something like ALS. Likewise, there is a connection between the younger Pony (played here with convincing flightiness and innocence by Allison Jean White) and the older, ailing Bob, which seems naturally fatherly, but would feel much different if the age spread were not so great. I'll just say this casting choice by director Loretta Greco is confusing, but may have just been an attempt to distinguish this production from the all-star one.
OK, here comes the spoiler: We learn mid-way through, amidst the spare, deceptively simple dialogue of this play and obtuse jokes from John, that the younger John has come to live in this town to see the same specialist whom Bob sees, because he suffers from the same rare syndrome. And because his wife Pony seems so incapable of coping with the seriousness of his illness, and incapable of taking care of him regardless, he's decided to hide this from her, letting her believe that it was her idea that they moved to this town. From here, the real meat of the drama unfolds, as the two couples continue to see each other and become friends, and as the two men face, with a certain amount of nihilistic humor and exhaustion, their eventual fates.
Eno's linguistic universe is unquestionably a stylized one. His characters speak in brief, sometimes broken phrases and simple, American cadences without a lot of pretense. And this is a play about people who are not particularly skilled, intellectually, or at all spiritual, eking out some day to day comfort and meaning in the face of the seeming meaninglessness of their lives.
Or, perhaps, it is the very lack of meaning one can find in the facing death, and the absurdity of it, that Eno is more accurately after. His work has been compared to Beckett and that is fair, but unlike Beckett's often absurdly hopeful fools, all the hope has been drained out of the Joneses for the most part. By the final vignette there is a tiny sliver of it, but even it feels a bit inauthentic like the sort of thing one talks about when one talks about death, even if one doesn't believe it, really.
In particular, Wagner's performance as John is a standout, not just for its believability but for his cynical and convincingly dismissive demeanor.
The moody set by designer Andrew Boyce with its pair of house exteriors and series of scrims behind actual tree trunks, giving on to a clear sky of stars works best for all of the backyard nighttime scenes, which comprise the majority. Lighting, though, fails to evoke daylight the few times we're meant to know it's daytime.
How much you like this play is probably going to rest on how much you enjoy the humor of the absurd, and the awkward, and can involve yourself in the lives of characters who probably would prefer you not involve yourself at all and just leave them alone. That is, realistically speaking, often how families dealing with a protracted illness can be.
The Realistic Joneses plays through April 3 at the Geary Theater. Find tickets here.