Spooky Action’s unrealistic ‘Realistic Joneses’ is a complete treat

The text keeps us off-kilter in a way that tickles us silly even as a sobering undercurrent churns.

Of course, the funny thing about Spooky Action Theater’s The Realistic Joneses is that it’s not really realistic. On the surface, it sort of seems so—two conventionally married couples, new neighbors who happen to have the same surname, chatting about this and that, keeping up with everyday real-life stuff. The author, Will Eno, has said he “wanted to really just write a naturalistic and realistic play.” Sure. But Eno is a wry and wily writer. Attune to his characters’ loopily elliptical nonsequiturs and you LOL. Then attend to the fear and pain in the interstices between their random thoughts and banal bon mots and, well, you don’t know quite what to do…because it’s funny and not funny, at precisely the same time.

Spooky Action’s deft treatment turns this delectably peculiar play into a full-on pleasure. The text keeps us off-kilter in a way that tickles us silly even as a sobering undercurrent churns about two husbands’ parallel progressive illnesses, their respective wives’ hopes to cope, their awkward flirting with each other’s wives as if wishful swingers. As performed by a superb and seasoned cast of four, the show is an engrossingly dimensional experience that could not have been had on Zoom. It needs us all to be in the same room…where we can hear what’s going unsaid.

Dan Crane as John Jones, Kimberly Gilbert as Pony Jones, Lisa Hodsoll as Jennifer Jones, and Todd Scofield as Bob Jones in ’The Realistic Joneses.’ Photo by Alec Wild.

The tubular tree trunks set about the stage are the first tipoff that this landscape is rural-surreal. The upstage wall is an abstractly painted mountain range in the distance, in flat shapes and shades of blue. Two forest-green platforms that stand stage left and stage right serve as each couple’s home; an Ikea-ish table and chairs on one, a huge packing carton on the other. Here and there are real objects: a backyard firepit, insecticidal candles, a garbage can. But the space never purports to be a real place.

The first couple we meet, Jennifer and Bob Jones, are older, more set in their ways, and married longer than the second couple we meet, Pony and John Jones, who just moved in next door and drop by and dote on each other as besotted newlyweds do.

There is an amusing testiness between Bob (Todd Scofield) and Jennifer (Lisa Hodsoll): He’s sullenly suffering some ailment with mysterious intermittent symptoms; she’s being the accommodating, long-suffering wife trying to stand by him and be upbeat. Lovebirds they’re not, but Scofield and Hodsoll are completely convincing as long-term caring spouses…whose best days may be behind them.

Pony (Kimberly Gilbert) and John (Dan Crane) pop over from next door, she all ditzy and atwitter, he all vague and vainglorious, and the both of them all over each other. Next to the staider Bob and Jennifer, they make a whimsical pair. Gilbert, who does delightful dim bulb better than anybody (“I don’t really have an attention span”), is utterly transfixing—and reason enough to see the play. She is the effervescent Energizer Bunny of every scene she’s in.

Todd Scofield as Bob Jones, Lisa Hodsoll as Jennifer Jones, Dan Crane as John Jones, and Kimberly Gilbert as Pony Jones in ’The Realistic Joneses.’ Photos by Alec Wild.

Eno’s language is a mix of tics, zig-zags, false starts, and small-talk throwaways, but now and then a kind of koan pops up:

“It’s such a pretty night,” says Jennifer to Bob. “It’s so quiet. You can almost hear the clouds go by.”

Such lines play like evocations of the ethereal, as when distant church bells ring and Pony says, “Listen to that, John. It’s like a real place.”

Yeah,” John replies.”It just makes you feel right in the middle of the whole lonesome thing.” 

Now and then too there are flat-out punchlines:

“Nature was definitely one of the big selling points,” Pony says, explaining why they moved here. “Plus, the school system’s supposed to be good.”

 “Oh, do you have kids?” Jennifer asks.

No,” says Pony, “it’s just, John hates stupid children.”

It’s a beat that warrants a rimshot.

Says Jennifer at another point, apropos something she said: ”I’m sorry. I just kind of blurted all that out.”

To which John says, understandingly, “That’s all right. That’s what separates us from the animal. You never hear animals blurting things out. Unless they’re being run over by a car or something.”

That kind of inaptness, which crops up a lot, just cracks me up.

Often as not, the characters talk past each other, which seems not to faze them. Indeed, clueless miscommunication is one of the play’s most endearing motifs. “People talk about things, or they don’t,” says John. “It doesn’t really matter.” In that sense, the play is comedically satisfying like Seinfeld—except with mortality looming overhead like audible clouds.

John is having symptoms of something. A sharp electronic tone pings whenever he feels a pain stab and his body spasms. Coincidentally, John has the same progressive disease that Bob has. It’s called, we are told, Harriman Leavey Syndrome, and the doctor after whom it is named—the discoverer of it and the world’s leading expert on its treatment—happens to live right here in this anonymous town. John has not told Pony that’s the real reason they moved here. His lie lingers unremarked then wafts away unresolved. What goes unsaid in this talky play speaks volumes.

The credible-sounding disease, HLS, is not a real one, I learned afterward. Eno made it up. I would have liked to know that going in, so I’m sharing it here, because it’s completely consistent with the playwright’s tease-y toying with the tipping point between real and not.

The director, Gillian Drake, who animates the proceedings with panache, has opted for a realistic acting style that approximates sitcom. I’m not certain that approach does best justice to the script’s distinctive sendup of everyday speech. Eno’s quirky wit at times got short shrift, I felt. His bemusing humor may need something akin to air quotes, a more droll distance in delivery from conventional domestic comedy. Something more in keeping with the heady koans that keep being blurted out.

But that’s a mere quibble.

The show as a whole is a complete treat and I recommend it highly.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, with no intermission.

The Realistic Joneses plays through October 24, 2021, performing Thursday through Saturday evenings with a Sunday matinee, at Spooky Action Theater, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets (general admission, $30–$40; seniors, $25–$35; students, $20), call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

COVID-19 HEALTH AND SAFETY POLICY

Spooky Action joins the Washington Theater community in subscribing to the highest level of public safety for our audiences, artists, staff, and volunteers. All theater staff and performers must be fully vaccinated and all will wear masks inside the building, with the exception of actors while performing on stage. On stage, actors will maintain a minimum of 10 feet of social distancing from audience members.

On checking in at the box office, audience members will present proof of full vaccination at least 14 days prior to the performance date.  A CDC Vaccination card or photo of the card on a cell phone are acceptable. Documentation of a medical exemption from vaccination, accompanied by proof of a negative PCR test within 48 hours of the performance, is also acceptable.

Audience members will remain masked while in the building and in the theater.  There will be no concessions, and removing masks for eating or drinking is not permitted inside the building.

CREDITS

The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno
Directed by Gillian Drake

Bob Jones: Todd Scofield
Jennifer Jones: Lisa Hodsoll
John Jones: Dan Crane
Pony Jones: Kimberly Gilbert

Assistant Director: Matthew Vaky
Stage Manager: David Elias
Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Set Design: Giorgos Tsappas
Lighting Design: Alberto Segarra
Costume Design: Robert Croghan
Props Design: Elizabeth Long
Movement Coach: Robert Bowen Smith
Additional Costume Design: Melissa Leigh Gilbert
Assistant Stage Manager: Jenna Keefer

SEE ALSO:
Spooky Action announces three plays for live reopening
(season announcement)

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John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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