Not much happens in Will Eno’s existential, melancholy play “The Realistic Joneses.” Having Beckettian echoes the four characters, two married couples who share Jones as a last name, seem to be uneasily waiting for an unknown, unnamed something. They also talk an awful lot, though often their words don’t make sense and nobody really listens anyway.
In this piece less is more, and was the perfect choice for A Public Fit Theatre Company’s second staged reading of 2016, presented Friday night at Inspire Theater. The spare, taut direction of Daniel Kucan allowed Eno’s naturalistic yet idiosyncratic language and all-too-human themes to take center stage and find evocative expression through his admirably restrained cast. And having had only five rehearsals made it all the more remarkable that the show was both touching and also very funny.
The unconventionally structured play unfolds in a series of vignettes. The detached Bob (Mark Gorman) and his loyal wife Jennifer (Christy Tice) sit on the back porch of their house on a lovely spring evening, listening to the clouds go by and attempting to chat. But Bob is reluctant to connect, and in Jennifer’s eyes it feels like they don’t talk much.
“What are we doing now?” he asks. “Math?”
“No, we’re...sort of throwing words at each other,” she says.
New neighbors John (JR Reed) and Pony (Rebecca Reyes) appear on the porch bearing a bottle of wine as an introductory gift, and Eno’s quirky conversation style kicks into high gear. When Jennifer invites the pair to have a seat, the acerbic John says “I practically invented sitting down. Actually, that’s not true.”
The ditzy young Pony explains that she has her own greeting card business. “It’s mostly online, so I can do it from anywhere. I could also not do it from anywhere, and that’d be fine, too.”
Both men are suffering from a horrible degenerative disease which affects the central nervous system, though John keeps it a secret from Pony. Bob’s failing memory and grasping for words is used as a metaphor for the general inability to communicate. Not knowing the truth, Pony points out to John how similar to Bob he is. “Sometimes, I forget stuff,” John says. “On the other hand, sometimes I remember stuff.”
The script is chock full of non sequiturs and Reed as the sardonic John bore the brunt of the zingers and delivered them with careful, deadpan elan. He made the part completely his own and grabbed the audience with every dry, funny line. He was multi-dimensional and nuanced, sometimes arrogant and cruel, yet caring enough to protect his fragile wife from the reality of his deteriorating condition and imminent demise.
Pony intuitively knows that something is amiss, and with Reyes in the part we were treated to an intelligent, self-effacing young woman whose cheerful exterior belied an undercurrent of sadness at being different from the rest. Reyes poignantly communicated her backstory so well that we saw the possible pain of a scared child who couldn’t fit in, convinced that she would never be good enough.
And that’s why she is attracted to Bob, whom Gorman played matter-of-factly as a man who seemed in denial of the severity of his condition, a man who in the face of his mortality had simply checked out. He was often amusing but absent of mind. “I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us,” he says at the end of the play, succinctly summing things up.
It’s Bob’s nihilism and lack of interest in his treatments that has the exasperated Jennifer at her wits end, and Tice was the perfect voice of earthy reason amidst the chaos of a world falling apart. A scene where she plaintively tries to reach Bob and get him to face reality was one of the most sorrowful because her attempt fell completely on deaf ears.
Kucan used different points of focus for the actors to illustrate the different levels of communication. Sometimes the actors delivered dialogue facing out toward the audience in a Reader’s Theatre style, to give a more direct impact to the words. At other times actors faced each other on opposite sides of the stage, with the huge chasm between them indicating a lack of connection.
Like the Joneses we all await that certain inevitable something from the moment we are born. We come into the world alone and leave the world alone, but we should find comfort with each other in between.