Yale Rep's THE REALISTIC JONESES is so good it's unreal

Jacques Lamarre

Three-and-a-half stars

When Will Eno burst on the scene with his 2005 play Thom Paine (based on nothing), critics bent over backwards to anoint the monologue with hosannas. I regretted not seeing the piece (especially after it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), but the hipster cred of the production made me wonder if Eno was the flavor of the moment, a critic's darling. Oftentimes, I'll rush out to see or hear something praised by critics as the new wunderkind talent only to find pretentiousness or faux-artiness.

Fortunately for audiences and Eno, the comedy The Realistic Joneses, now receiving its world premiere production at Yale Repertory Theatre, shows a thrilling and likely enduring playwright taking flight. Highly original in tone and temperament, The Realistic Joneses is surreally funny and, at times, tremendously affecting. Exhibiting a slightly unhinged sense of humor and a dizzying way with language, Eno's new play showcases an unnerving comic approach to very human situations.

The basic outline of the plot highlights Eno's skewed viewpoint. A couple, the Joneses, are spending a quiet night in their backyard. Their conversation exhibits a combination of familiarity and disconnect. Their new neighbors, also named Jones, arrive uninvited and proceed to make a bizarre first impression. In short order, the two sets of Joneses find that they share togetherness, loneliness, illness and flakiness. They are four quite odd and quite realistic peas in a pod.

Director Sam Gold tackles the talky, absurdist Realistic Joneses with, well, a realistic bent. He stages scenes with simplicity and appropriate awkwardness. Big themes are at work in the piece -- chief among them mortality and how it loosens our grip on reality -- but everything is exhibited in a small way. The seemingly spare set by David Zinn indicates in both realistic and non-realistic ways their conjoined homes and lives. The fantastic and evocative lighting design by Mark Barton cuts and divides the work into intimate scenes of backyard lighting, backlit menace, and blinding moments of truth-telling.

Gold and Yale Rep have brilliantly cast the production with four top-notch performers. Johanna Day, a particular personal favorite known for her smart, tart turns in The Evildoers, Peter and Jerry, and August: Osage County, brings a blunt energy to Jennifer, Bob's frustrated wife. Bob, portrayed by Steppenwolf ensemble member and August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, is a scattered and shattered man caught between day-to-day life and a frightening illness. Indie movie fave Parker Posey, in the role of Pony Jones, eschews her usual urbane wit for a sweeter, odd performance more in keeping with the work she displays as a member of Christopher Guest's comic ensemble in such films as Waiting for Guffman and For Your Consideration.

The great surprise of the cast is Glenn Fitzgerald in the utterly original stage creation of John Jones. His spacey, non-sequitur filled performance is a masterpiece of underplaying and stealth comedy. When John's life takes on darker hues and tones, Fitzgerald’s mastery of the role allows the audience glimpses of the depth hiding below the wackiness. All of the actors in the cast share this ability, but Fitzgerald truly shines.

For much of the time, The Realistic Joneses is relentlessly funny, and not in some hard-to-understand way. Audience laughter and engagement was consistent throughout. Eno knows how to turn away from the expected punchline or comic bit in favor of a surprising and unlikely left hook.

The dramatic moments in the play show that Eno is still wrestling with the marriage of his absurdist humor and the more traditional kitchen sink drama. There are scenes that feel real and others that feel unreal. Hopefully, Eno will find a way to more successfully blur the two styles together. The play's remarkable final scene, which manages to be both unsettling and hilarious, may provide a road map forward for future productions.

Yale Rep caps a strong season with this smart, funny and thought-provoking premiere. For those of you jonesing for quality theatre, head to New Haven.

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