Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Realistic Joneses
When it all began, it was straight-up storytelling, heightening Tragedy with masks and speeches. But the action was largely ceremonial, and everyone was at the mercy of the gods. Then Comedy stumbled in, less than a century later, exposing most human problems as man-made. And now, thousands of years past that, when everything has gotten a lot more personal, and a lot more subtle, Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses comes along to toy with our current understanding of consciousness itself, by the odd distortion of it.
There is uniformly deep, meaningful acting here, along with director Edward M. Coffield's trademark mille-feuille of complex relationships, which are plumbed in funny, fresh, unsettling ways. But there's also a very classical kind of curse that's settled upon them all, in the black-box theater at the Jewish Community Center, in a new production by Rebel and Misfits Productions of Mr. Eno's play, which first appeared in 2012.
Bob and Jennifer Jones are the older couple, baby-boomers who've lived in their house (in "a small town near the mountains") for many years. A younger couple, John and Pony Jones (no relation), has just moved into the neighborhood, and they proceed to shake things up with their free and easy ways. But the careless manner of the younger couple seems only a slight exaggeration of our present-day society, where the concept of foraging for food would be absurd; and where there's always power and light and HVAC (John is a repairman in that field) to help enforce the protective "bubble" over their existence.
That bubble may explain why everyone lives (and seems to get lost) in the present moment, in a play that's defined by a series of somewhat interchangeable black-out scenes (recalling Nick Payne's Constellations, also from 2012). However, very quickly, the blissful, eternal moment is punctured, compromised by a rare disease that disjoints the mind, like a curse upon mindfulness itself. It's as if modern America had stolen the eternal confidence of the gods, only to pay for it with an eternal fear of madness.
Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell are the baby boomers unexpectedly rushing into the twilight of their years, and Isaiah Di Lorenzo and Kelly Hummert are the quirky new neighbors. All four are outstanding, with Mr. Di Lorenzo performing his own startling dive into madness, even as Ms. Hummert's Pony has re-invented her entire engagement with reality (thus mimicking madness itself). All four are full of impossible questions about themselves, which is the high cost of peace and freedom; and each wears consumerism like a clown's nose. It would be an unflattering portrait of a nation were it not informed by an ennobling sort of lowliness.
Strangely, the two couples bring us full circle in the life of theater: where once we blamed the gods for our problems, we now blame disease. Or, in the case of another successful recent drama, Stephen Karam's The Humans (2015), we blame the economy. But the gods have only changed their shape, becoming more scientific and less human. They're still as jealous and implacable as ever. Humanity changes in that same equation as well, seeming more godlike, or at least self-assured. But it's an ephemeral thing, and godlike men are often left bitter and despairing.
One of Ms. McConnell's greatest moments comes when Jennifer finally snaps, warning her husband, "I am so tired of you/you hurt my feelings," which may seem like a familiar enough lament in almost anybody's long-term relationship. But at this juncture she also seems to recognize that she can never demolish Bob with her words, as quickly as a disease is doing that work already. In her outburst, she seems bitterly aware that her own attempts to keep her husband alive, or even to "end him" in a moment of total exasperation, are swept aside by something as small as an amino acid that happened to land in the wrong place before he ever was born.
So in that sense there is fate, and even redemption, when it had often seemed to be just "a play about nothing." But in all the right hands, it somehow becomes a play about everything.
The Realistic Joneses, through August 12, 2018, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.rebelandmisfitsproductions.com/.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association