Theater Review: The Realistic Joneses at Live Arts

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The Realistic Joneses relies on a cast that can convey the authenticity of human
interaction—ranging from hilarious one-liners and abrupt observations to the meaning behind half-formed compliments. Photo by Will Kerner The Realistic Joneses relies on a cast that can convey the authenticity of human interaction—ranging from hilarious one-liners and abrupt observations to the meaning behind half-formed compliments. Photo by Will Kerner

There’s something a bit off about The Realistic Joneses.

“Maybe it’s me,” you think at first. You’re sitting so close to the middle-aged couple you’re practically on top of them. She’s talking about the beauty of the night air and the owl she can hear in the distance. He’s staring down at hands twisted together, harrumphing with irritation. It’s awfully intimate, the way you’re hovering in other people’s tension.

But you’re in a theater and you’ve paid to watch this, so that’s exactly what you do: eavesdrop on the world’s most realistic conversation and try not to squirm with discomfort.

The Realistic Joneses
Live Arts
Runs through May 13

Outside a small kitchen, pacing a small AstroTurf lawn, she tosses up conversational softballs and he smacks them down with frustration.

“Maybe we should paint the house,” says Misses.

“Why?” Mister asks. “Won’t we just have to paint it again after that?”

His logic is silly, childish, perfect. Once you start laughing, it’s hard to stop.

You realize this curmudgeon is inadvertently funny. You also find out that he’s sick.

His wife hints at something serious and confusing, but he refuses to talk about it. You see her repressing her own frustration, but she refuses to talk about that.

The night air may be lovely, but it’s also tense. That’s why your heart jumps (as do Misses and Mister) when a muffled crash sounds from offstage.

Could it be a strange animal? A prowler? A plot twist? You pray for something to break the soupy, suburban stillness.

That’s when a young couple appears, offering a bottle of wine. As they introduce themselves as new neighbors John and Pony Jones, you learn Mister and Misses are named Bob and Jennifer Jones. Four Joneses, one neighborhood. What are the odds?

At this point, the dialogue starts throwing off sparks, hilarious one-liners and abrupt observations, and you finally realize what felt off at first. It’s like watching a play about real people, all of whom are a little bit weird.

You’ve stepped into an alternate universe populated by strangers, but they all feel so damn familiar. You’re listening to non-sequitur dialogue, but it mirrors the scattershot logic of your brain. The Realistic Joneses is realistic, yes; it’s a human, authentic comedy, but it’s also borderline absurd.

Welcome to the wild world of Will Eno, the playwright who penned Joneses in 2014. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Eno is known for his unique brand of comedy, which turns on quirky, true-to-life conversation.

Fran Smith, the director of Live Arts’ version of Joneses, certainly had her work cut out for her. A play like this depends on timing, nuance and actors who can take their cues apropos of nothing.

To her credit, Smith gives her audience a world that ought to do Eno proud. She’s given her actors room to play, to deepen their characters and develop unscripted backstories that rush into the silence between sentences. Like the simple but effective set pieces, we understand how a half-formed compliment or bad joke conveys discomfort, or longing, or lust.

The Realistic Joneses can be described as a series of short sketches happening in chronological order. Each sketch features a few (or all) of the same four characters. Time is progressing, and a plot is unfolding, but it rambles and hints rather than progressing in strong, linear strokes.

For that reason, perhaps, I found myself getting impatient somewhere in the first act. More thematic development! More narrative clarity! Show me some progress and make me care!

Beneath my brain’s demands, however, I recognized Eno’s integrity. This show is committed to authentic patterns of human behavior. I couldn’t fairly demand a cinematic character breakthrough every time someone cleaned the kitchen.

By the second act, though, I was fully invested. I saw glimpses of depth in each of the characters, I craved resolution to unfolding mysteries, and I definitely wanted to laugh some more.

In fact, the actors deserve applause for bringing this show to life. In the wrong hands, I’m sure it could easily be rendered unwatchable, but Live Arts’ version was actually fun. 

I loved Jack Walker’s manic take on John Jones, the young, doting husband full of quirks and secrets. He embraced his character’s most unusual brain, hardening with anger, softening with pain, and delivered one-liners with total conviction. (My personal favorite: “I saw you crying and eating a PowerBar, and I thought, ‘Wow. That is one sad, busy person.’”)

Adrienne Oliver plays Pony Jones, a germophobe who tends to avoid thinking too hard about the hard stuff. She warms her character’s self-centered behavior with earnest sweetness and flickers of self-doubt, holding fast to the good in herself and others despite any evidence to the contrary.

Jennifer Jones is the long-suffering wife who gives up her job and her travel dreams to become a full-time caregiver. Kate Adamson manages to express the full range of her character’s tangled emotions—frustration, tenderness, outrage and resignation—often in just a few sentences.

Bill LeSueur (C-VILLE Weekly’s creative director) plays Bob, who looks at his own mortality sideways. Bob joins us closed off, self-centered and awkward, but LeSueur’s blossoming across two acts was incredibly satisfying.

Lucky, because The Realistic Joneses isn’t the sort of play that gives you a satisfying ending. It’s not unhappy or frustrating, I’m pleased to say, but it doesn’t wrap up with a neat little bow.

It’s like life, after all. Most chapters don’t end with a scripted flourish and a heroic kiss. It’s more like an unsung conversation or the hoot of an owl, a moment that passes without our awareness and appears only in hindsight how whole and human it was.

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