Andrew Boyce’s set for the American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) production of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses will make you yearn for suburbia -- the quiet of the nights, the way a backyard can seem to be a forest in the dark. It conveys an appreciation for living in the moment that captures the best aspects of Eno’s play and work.
Eno has ascended from cult appreciation to major star in recent years. The dramatist has a deft touch with dialogue and possesses what critics and audiences often describe as a quirky sensibility. A light haze of absurdist humor hangs over all Eno's plays, no matter how serious the subject matter. Tragedy: A Tragedy is about the end of the world; The Flu Season, insanity and suicide; The Open House, the gradual disappearance of a family. And The Realistic Joneses is about dying. Slowly.
You certainly feel the grandeur of Eno's designs and aspirations in this drama. His characters' concerns are everyday ones, but his viewpoint is cosmic. And that tension is what makes his work fascinating, if also somewhat unrealized and jerry-rigged.
The Realistic Joneses begins in the dark and under the stars where we find a middle-aged couple, Bob and Jennifer Jones, sitting outdoors on their back patio, talking about nothing in particular. Then the Joneses' trash cans tip over and the play tenses. They think it might be a skunk or raccoon, but we know better: it's the neighbors, who also go by the name of Jones. Only these Joneses -- John and Pony -- are younger and a bit loopier. "We're Joneses, too," Pony enthusiastically exclaims in actress Allison Jean White's hippy-chick twang.
What follows is a lovely scene of two couples with little in common besides a name, trying, to the best of their abilities, to make small talk. And because they don’t know each other, they’re forced into a disarming intimacy. John and Pony Jones both have to pee and their forays into the older Joneses’ bathrooms have the feel of a subtle and unnecessary violation. Eno is tricky in how he manages entrances and exits, and so the brief absence of one set of Joneses can trigger another a confession from the other. This is how we find out that Bob is sick with a degenerative disease.
The Realistic Joneses begins in a world of human concerns. All the Joneses want is to live as if they will live forever, to know that the next day will come as the one before it. And yet in various ways they all know that disaster is looming and that the world is closing in on them. It is a truly striking and promising first scene.
But for all of Eno’s gifts, he can’t see his way past this smart set-up. His vision is aligned with the universe -- massive, mathematical, symmetrical, a never-ending parade of births and deaths. That's fine; Sophocles felt the same way. But it feels as if his characters have adopted his beliefs, that they are a product of Eno's philosophical system, rather than having and acting on their own sense of the world. In fact, in The Realistic Joneses there is no sense of the world other than Eno's machinations: we are stuck in a pattern, like the stars above us, and the play loses the force of any kind of conflict, anguish, and emotional development.
You can feel the problem in the very architecture of the play. It is not just Bob Jones who is dying, but the younger John Jones, too. And in the play’s only true irony, John is in a much more advanced stage of "Harriman Leavey Syndrome" -- a made-up disease whose most pronounced symptom (when coupled with the right medicine) is a quirky sense of humor and a delightful loss of social propriety. These, rather aptly, are also the most recognizable qualities of Eno’s work. It’s as if he’s unconsciously created a disease that describes what's wrong with his plays.
For most of the play, John makes little sense. And the same thing happens to Bob at the end, when he's reached John's stage of stand up comic dementia. I know he's strung out on drugs, but I haven't seen one drug ever make anyone that delightful. You can always see through the cracks, and they do not lead to an ordered universe. Eno does make gestures towards real pain. But the dominant mode here is one of deft, light entertainment. It feels like a cheat of what we know of the world and of the consequences Eno has set up but refused to embrace.
There have been a lot of slow deaths in the theater -- from 19th century stalwarts such as Dumas, fils’ The Lady of the Camellias and Puccini’s La Bohème to scores of 20th century meditations on cancer and AIDS. They run the generic gamut, from melodrama to lacerating satires. But none of them reduce the sickness itself to breezy, comic shtick. Rather, there’s a belief in the singularity of the soul and the body that holds it. We might be nothing more than a series of repetitions, one Jones after another, as Eno suggests. But each of us is particular and we struggle in our own particular ways. To deny the universe -- the indifferent stars above us -- is much more thrilling than the wry commentary and smart jokes of Eno's incomplete realism.
The Realistic Jones plays through Sunday, Apr. 3 at ACT's Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, please go to http://www.act-sf.org.