There they are, the four of them, up in some little town near the mountains, sitting outside, breathing the crisp air, chattering maybe pointlessly or maybe not, grating on one another’s nerves, watching their lives slowly slip away.
And, yes, it’s a comedy.
The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s circuitous and allusive play that opened Friday night at Third Rail Rep, is a sort of Chekhov of the suburbs, or more accurately of the forgotten corners of small-town America, a play of puzzled emotions and ambitions so far lost that they can’t quite be put into words anymore. What was that I wanted to do and be, again, before life interrupted?
As with Chekhov, nothing much happens in The Realistic Joneses, and the world shifts. The play begins with one of those funny-awkward encounters. Bob and Jennifer Jones are sitting outside on their patio chairs, involved in what seems their ordinary game of forced cheerfulness (on her part) and passive aggression (on his) when the clatter of an overturning garbage can sounds offstage and John and Pony burst around the corner, all cheery and bearing a bottle of wine. They’re the new neighbors, and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the Joneses, too.
It’s a sitcom setup, which is a description, not a judgment. John and Pony are bombastic and a little smug; Jennifer’s warm and hopeful; Bob’s irritated and just wants to get up and go to bed. They’re a mismatch made in heaven, and, as the play’s indeterminate amount of time marches on, it becomes clear that the four of them have only one another.
Third Rail has brought four top actors together for this little exercise in quiet heartbreak and existential whimsy, and Rebecca Lingafelter directs them with a firm but gentle hand, allowing them to feel their way through the language (“sort of throwing words at each other,” as Jennifer puts it) to the churning emotions behind. You need to feel, first and foremost, that each of these two couples belongs together, and that somewhere along the line, familiarity has bred regret – that loneliness has set in where companionship used to be, and still is, on the surface.
That essential is met, with feeling, by Darius Pierce and Kerry Ryan as Bob and Jennifer, and by Michael O’Connell and Dana Green as John and Pony. This is four pros at ease with their work, finding tiny corners to turn and fleeting moments of huge impact. Pierce plays up his pudgy ordinariness to something like exotic effect, pushing people away and then briefly letting them in, surprising and perhaps frightening himself back into withdrawal. Ryan suffers optimistically, adding other people’s burdens to her own, sacrificing and sacrificing ’til she’s ready to snap. O’Connell, with his shock of wayward silver hair and his sometimes needling, sometimes lost voice, stands a little to the side, pretending superiority. And Green barrels on like a glamor queen set loose in the boonies, charmed and bemused by the locals, except she slowly makes it clear that she’s lost herself, frightened and insecure, needing an anchor and not sure John can provide it.
Eno’s way with words is clever and surprising, and at first it seems like John and Pony are the sophisticated outsiders, slumming in the country and making quiet sport of the locals, and it had me thinking, “Ah, so that’s the sort of play this is; smug jokes by the playwright at the expense of ordinary people,” and I felt my defenses going up. But slowly things shifted, and I realized that no one was what they seemed at first, and everyone was drifting, and they were all pretty much in the same boat, just realizing that Father Time was ticking away on them, and there wasn’t really much of anything they could do about it. The air is mountain-crisp, but the soft stench of mortality hovers in it, and it’s not so much that nobody gets out of there alive, as it is that it’s dawned on all four of them that that’s the way it’s always been, and is always going to be.
It’s tough not to like a play that finds this much wonder in the ordinary. The play doesn’t underline its key scenes, it slips into them unobtrusively. A conversation at a food sample table at the grocery store. A tussle of wills on the patio, where the two men are staring at the stars in the sky, so quietly hostile that they have to divide the heavens between them, each agreeing not to look at the other’s sector. All four looking at one another’s partners, assessing the possibilities, contemplating a switch, wondering what it might be like, afraid to truly find out.
Someone’s ill in The Realistic Joneses, and maybe someone else, and it’s tough to face but maybe it’s not going to get better, and that’s the thing: life is terminal, and maybe that’s not its point but that’s its reality, and in the meantime, what are you going to do? What you might do, what you can do, is what Eno’s play and these four small and extraordinarily ordinary lives come down to.
Maybe it’s not a life of quiet desperation, after all. Maybe they just think it is, but it’s something else entirely. Maybe they’ve been happy all along, wandering through life thwarted and morose, because that, when it comes right down to it, is the way they prefer things. Or maybe that’s not it at all: maybe life just happens, and you accept it or you don’t. Maybe happiness is a rare visitation, a gift, a moment when the stars collude and you realize who you are and how you fit and just accept it, and then the moment floats way but not before it’s left you with enough hope and light to make it through the stumbling morass of mere reality, of life happening and crumbling, until the visitation comes again. Maybe it’s just paying attention, just reaching out instead of in. Maybe happiness is love, and you found it long ago and then forgot, but there it’s been all that time, in front of you, beside you, only waiting. Maybe that’s the real reality. Might it be?
Theater is tragedy. Sometimes life is just a situation comedy that deepens and takes on shadings and becomes real. Or maybe that’s what theater does. Who knows?
Third Rail Rep’s The Realistic Joneses continues though November 14 at Imago Theatre, 17 Southeast Eighth Avenue, Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.