When he was little, my nephew Zach told me that his “favorite thing about the zoo is the animals!” I thought of this after seeing The Realistic Joneses, because my initial reaction after seeing Will Eno’s acclaimed new play was that “my favorite thing about this play was the dialogue!”
If that intro doesn’t make it obvious enough, then I’ll just go ahead and say that this play is all about the interaction, far more so than plot or character. Four characters (portrayed by a quartet of terrific actors), married pairs of neighbors who share the surname Jones, bump into each other at the store, wander over to each other’s houses, and just chat about stuff. They’re John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei), new to the neighborhood; and Bob and Jennifer (Tracey Letts and Toni Collette), who are struggling with Bob’s terminal illness. Serious thoughts, funny exchanges, minor annoyances, moments of romance and intimacy, glasses of wine together. This play is full of little moments; the question is do all these moments really add up to something?
Before I get into that, I thought I’d try to explain what I’m talking about when I discuss Mr. Eno’s dialogue. Going entirely from my memory — I’m not going to start taking notes for a blog, that would be ridiculous — here is an illustrative exchange (you can find more in the NYT review linked above):
John: (peeking at Bob’s watch): Is that the real time?
Bob: It’s a WATCH.
Pony: I wish I had a sweater on.
Bob: Do you want me to get you a sweatshirt?
Pony: Oh, I’m not cold. I just wish I had a sweater.
Or this one (which is probably totally inaccurate, but honestly people. I wasn’t taking notes. I can’t start taking notes at plays like a huge dork. I’m sure Mr. Eno’s version is way better.)
Bob: I won’t get the wrong idea.
Pony: What’s the wrong idea?
Bob: I don’t know. I just want to make sure I don’t have it.
Imagine 95 minutes of dialogue like this. One witty exchange and the characters make a hairpin turn to another topic. Another clever interaction, and they’re on to the next subject. Pony at one point admits to lacking much of an attention span; I felt like she might have been speaking for the play itself. To be fair, the meandering lets up a little bit towards the end of the show, though it never disappears entirely.
All that said, this play did feel like a bit more than the sum of its parts. Of course the cast helped quite a bit. Marisa Tomei is bubbly and likable, but Michael C. Hall, portraying her husband, is hilarious and lovable. His comic timing is just perfect, and he has a way of zoning out mid-conversation that is both scary (the character is clearly ill) and very, very funny. Toni Collette’s role is a little less showy (she seems to be the only grownup among the four), but whenever I see her perform I’m reminded just what a terrific actress she is. Finally, Tracy Letts always manages to be a wonderful actor (in this, just as he was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and playwright (August: Osage County) without making me want to throttle him for being so annoyingly talented.
Still though, I’d have liked a bit more clarity. A bit more depth. I get that these characters, written as they are, would only refer obliquely to an affair, or an illness, but I’d have liked to see a little more explicit conflict. Talk about the affair, people! Explain your illness! Say how you feel! Too often I felt like I was only getting a glimpse of the story, and I’d have liked more. I had friends who saw the show and didn’t like it much because “nothing really happens.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but they definitely had a point.