By Bradley Rohlf
“The Realistic Joneses,” produced by Rebel and Misfits Productions, is everything a contemporary American play should be. From Will Eno’s masterfully crafted script, to the cast’s magnetic character portrayals, Edward M. Coffield directs an impactful experience that truly should not be missed.
The set, designed by Peter and Margery Spack, fills the middle of the room with runway-style seating on either side. At first glance, it is well-composed and almost cute. Two models of identical houses flank the playing space, surrounded by various suburban accoutrements: a lawn mower on a cinder block, a grill, coolers, patio furniture. But then the eye is drawn in by the wall-to-wall turf and hanging lanterns suspended from the void of the ceiling – or more likely, outer space.
These elements, coupled with lighting design by Jon Ontiveros and sound design by Ellie Schwetye, serve to complete this world. The atmosphere begins to tell the story before the lights rise on the action.
Bob and Jennifer Jones (Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell) are spending a quiet evening on their back patio when their conversation is interrupted by something knocking over their trash can. Is it a raccoon? No, it’s their new neighbors, John and Pony (Isaiah Di Lorenzo and Kelly Hummert), also named Jones, who just moved into an identical tract home like theirs in a little town near the mountains.
The title suggests the cliché of keeping-up-with, but that is a bit of a red herring. There is no competition of material wealth or societal status between families. Rather, these Joneses are keeping up with hiding and learning each other’s secrets.
The title also suggests American realism, but the audience need not fear the stereotypes of the genre: dark, brooding, and intense – a fireworks display of broken relationships and lots of shouting. No, this play is not “August Osage County,” nor is it written by David Mamet.
In fact, the titular pair of couples may be touted as realistic, but it’s a stilted type of realistic. It’s not a direct reflection of life, but a version of reality we have been conditioned to accept. We are presented with a healthy mix of natural conversation two strangers in the real world might have (if strangers actually conversed), and situational humor that could be equally at home on television. But we accept it as realistic, because that is what we see all the time. As a society, we observe more fictional narratives than actual narratives, and therefore, they feel more real.
Eno understands this and capitalizes on it in constructing his play. His script is genuinely funny, and for all the snappy wordplay and ironic jokes, none of them sound like they come from the writer’s hand — they are all from the character’s mouth. The humor serves to disarm the viewer, and careful distribution of details create an air of suspense.
Not one person in the ensemble of Joneses is necessarily likable, or a typical hero, but through the cast’s portrayals, we fall in love with them anyway. They are real enough people, and after spending two hours with the Joneses, we feel like we know them.
Much of the characters’ interactions are driven by a desire to not let the other into their lives. Bob suffers a chronic and deteriorative disease, and he and Jennifer initially try to hide his condition from their new neighbors. The action is framed through the lens of managing disease, but the play is not distinctly about it.
The great strength of this piece is how it shows the characters confronting mortality. We see ourselves and our friends in their responses: natural ignorance, willful ignorance, seeking details and analysis, or self-reliance and confrontation. In turn, the performances serve to shake our current view of the terminal nature of human life.
In the wake of the human loss of the second world war, playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter pioneered the Theatre of the Absurd movement, seeking to shock audiences out of an apathetic life. This play achieves those goals, tailored for a contemporary audience.
Now, against the current backdrop of modernity and post-modernity’s constant battle for cultural supremacy, Eno brings us the meditation we didn’t know we needed. “Joneses” finds its realness not in the relationships between the characters, but in the relationship between the work and the audience. It is fully enjoyable as a piece of entertainment, and deeply valuable as a perspective-altering mirror of life.
Rebel and Misfits Productions presents “The Realistic Jones” from July 26 through Aug. 12 at the JCCA’s New Jewish Theatre black box, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. For more information, visit www.rebelandmisfitsproductions.com. For tickets, call MetroTix 314-534-1111 or go to www.MetroTix.com.
Photos by Eric Woolsey