(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance art critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
The travails of suburban lives and marriages have long been fodder for many famous productions of the stage and screen, from “All My Sons” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to “Dinner With Friends.” As such, Will Eno’s play “The Realistic Joneses” treads on somewhat familiar territory, but it does so with a unique linguistic and surrealist twist that Hyde Park Theatre’s current production fully exploits in order to create an engaging, if deliberately vague, evening of theater.
“The Realistic Joneses” earned great praise for playwright Eno when it ran on Broadway in 2014, with good reason. Eno’s text melds the tradition of suburban kitchen sink drama with the nuanced language of Harold Pinter and a subtle dash of surrealism to create a sometimes elliptical drama that has a biting sense of dark, uncomfortable humor.
The play tells the contemporary story of two couples – Jennifer and Bob, and Pony and John – both of whom have the last name of Jones. Pony and John have just moved to town, and the two couples make an awkward attempt at friendship. However, “The Realistic Joneses” is not so much driven by plot as it is by theme and tone. Each character in different ways – through stress, anxiety, and even disease – find themselves unable to fully communicate, and their diverse relationships show how hard it is to express true meaning and emotion even (or perhaps especially) to the ones we love the most.
Though the text and message of the play may ultimately be vague (and in that sense it truly is “realistic,” leaving us wondering if things will be all right, knowing that they ultimately will not, and continuing to live our lives even so), director Ken Webster’s production is perfectly precise and direct. The ultra-realistic set from designer Mark Pickell unites a suburban backyard with a cozy kitchen, all highlighted by gorgeous lighting from Don Day and immersive sound design by Robert S. Fisher.
The heart of “The Realistic Joneses,” though, is its performances, all of which radiate with rich internal contradictions that help to express the nuances of the text. Webster, doing double duty as director and actor, portrays Bob with a deadpan bluntness that is hilarious in its childlike naiveté towards others’ feelings. Rebecca Robinson, as the beleaguered Jennifer, shows a constant strain of stress lurking just underneath an increasingly thin veneer of having everything together. Jess Hughes delights as Pony, presenting a quirky housewife whose real pain and trauma deconstruct the “Manic Pixie Dream girl” trope in a thoughtful and heartbreaking way.
Benjamin Summers provides the centerpiece of the show in his performance as John. From awkward dork to jealous husband and, finally, lost soul, Summers makes John’s journey believable even in its often surrealist dimensions.
“The Realistic Joneses” is certainly no polemic, ultimately leaving viewers without a clear message, but it does present a subtle and moving portrayal of the complexities of life, love and language in the world today.
“The Realistic Joneses” continues through March 26. hydeparktheatre.org.