Where: Shattered Globe
Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through March 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Playwright Will Eno has an ear for awkwardness, anxiety, and absurdity, and all three abound in “The Realistic Joneses,” which made its debut on Broadway in 2014; it is having a beautifully acted Chicago premiere in a co-production by Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit directed by Theater Wit’s artistic director Jeremy Wechsler.
The surname Jones suggests all that is common, and the two couples who bear it in Eno’s existential sitcom are simultaneously ordinary and…not. They also seem to be the opposite of each other, but the men at least are more similar than at first appears, and all share the frustrations and loneliness of living from day to day.
Nothing much happens in the 100 intermission-less minutes, a series of short scenes shaped like comedy sketches, except that the characters get to know each other a little better, maybe. Their conversations and failures to communicate range from mundane to profound and are filled with stray observations and non sequiturs that often are very funny. The emotions run from anger to love, antipathy to empathy, but don’t expect any resolutions at the end, because you’ll be disappointed.
The evening begins simply enough. Bob (H.B. Ward) and Jennifer (Linda Reiter) Jones, a long-married middle-aged couple, are sitting on the back deck of their modest home in a little town somewhere near the mountains enjoying a quiet evening. They talk about nothing in particular, but there’s a tense undercurrent. When she broaches the topic of his health—we soon learn he has a degenerative nerve disease—he dodges the subject, and she says: “It just seems like we don’t talk.” He replies, deadpan, “What are we doing right now, math?” Her retort: “No, we’re—I don’t know—sort of throwing words at each other.”
The word throwing settles into halting and intermittently disjointed exchanges with the surprise arrival of neighbors John (Joseph Wiens) and Pony (Cortney McKenna) Jones, a recently married young couple who’ve rented the long-vacant house down the block. Initially mistaken for a raccoon or something, they come crashing through the garbage cans in the yard but are bearing a bottle of wine. The visit with the older Joneses has an uneasy intimacy starting with Pony and John each asking to use the bathroom. The wine never gets opened.
While Ward is ideally cast as the grumpy Bob, a former athlete player who looks like a schlub and is in denial about his illness with such symptoms as temporary blindness and memory lapses, Reiter’s comparatively normal Jennifer matches him perfectly as the forbearing caregiver who loves him but also resents the role in which she’s been cast.
Like Bob, John has a rare neurological disease and has come to this town for the leading doctor in the field, but he divulges this only to Jennifer and seeks comfort from her. Though she’s wary at first, this brings out her nurturing side. John doesn’t confide in Bob, except indirectly in one rather hostile nighttime scene when they’re both caught by his motion-sensitive outdoor light, and he doesn’t tell his wife because he’s afraid of her reaction. Though not as menacing as he could be, Wiens is very good at capturing John’s mercurial personality with all its secrets and evasions, as well as his penchant for misreading what others are saying, streak of sarcasm, and genuine attempts at affection.
McKenna’s completely convincing Pony is a real piece of work, a disturbingly neurotic young woman who can draw someone in and push him away in the same sentence. Alternately super-animated and depressed, she’s a study in contradictions and sometimes doesn’t make much sense. She’s also very fastidious and freaks out at the sight of a dead squirrel, as well as recoiling from refrigerator odors. It’s no wonder John hasn’t told her about his condition. Not surprisingly, each senses their marriage is precarious.
Precariousness pervades the whole play, and director Wechsler deserves credit for his careful pacing. What could be better is Jack Magaw’s set, which looks a little rickety, particularly during the scene changes. John Kelly’s lighting design and Christopher Kriz’s sound design and original music are odd at times, but Hailey Rakowiecki’s costumes are nicely apropos.
The main reason to see “The Realistic Joneses” is how real the actors make four characters who don’t succeed very well at being realistic.