NEW YORK (AP) — You know when people first meet and it can be instantly awkward? They talk over each other, make inane comments and sometimes completely miss the point? Well, that pretty much never ends in Will Eno’s quirky, existential Broadway debut.
In “The Realistic Joneses,” which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, Eno has two couples meet for the first time and makes their interactions so tortured and weird that he seems to be suggesting that language itself is a terrible way for humans to communicate.
“This was fun,” one says to the others after the initial meeting. “I mean, not fun, but, definitely some other word.” A few scenes later, the same character blurts out, after falling into another of the plays many linguistic eddies: “Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway.”
The cast assembled for this often-puzzling 90-minute play is remarkable: Toni Collette of “United States of Tara,” Marisa Tomei of “My Cousin Vinny,” Michael C. Hall of “Dexter” and Tracy Letts, the Tony winning playwright and actor.
All make their parts funny and poignant as they try to rise above the soup of lines they’ve been given. The humor is unconventional and gets tiresome by the second half. Sometimes it feels like a long intellectual version of the old “Who’s on First” routine. It may have been more fun to write than see.
Director Sam Gold revels in its bizarreness without letting it get loopy, while David Zinn’s cluttered set design – especially with Mark Barton’s reliance on backlit lighting – give the show a somewhat eerie look.
Set in a semi-rural town that’s never specified, the play presents Tomei as Pony, a sensitive soul who likes nature and wants to start “using dandelions in salads.” She’s married to John, an oddball repairman who likes collecting pamphlets.
They move in next door to Letts’ Bob, an idiosyncratic character who doesn’t like that hot-air balloons are in “such bright colors.” His wife is Collette’s slightly manic Jennifer, who likes to look at the international foods at the grocery store (“It always calms me down, in a sort of churchy way.”) All four characters’ last name are Jones, hence half the title. As for the “realistic” part, that depends on what’s real in your life.
Things that are rotten or breaking at their cores is a theme that seems to run through the play, from broken bags to lamps to careers. One of the characters suffers from a degenerative nerve disease and all four seem to sink further into a physical and mental funk over the play’s 12 scenes. Infidelity is hinted at, but causes little ripples. Mostly, the characters simply stare up at the sky, suffering alone.
It’s clear that all four hunger for human connection and to be understood, but that simply won’t happen. Their language keeps them apart and even the simplest conversations become muddied non-sequiturs.
At one point Jennifer wants to thanks John for talking to her recently. “You made me feel better. And I remembered people can do that. That talking with someone can make you feel better.”
To which, John replies: “What if, after you talk, the other person just stares back at you. With nothing in their heart.”
Jennifer is aghast: “Are you saying that’s what’s happening now?”
“No,” replies John.
That exchange pretty much sums up this play – funny, but more than a little maddening. Or it’s just over our heads. Or maybe under it. Whatever. It’s fun. Or maybe not fun, but definitely some other word.
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits