By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Will Eno, theater's reigning prince of snarky anomie, has two new plays on in New York, one his Broadway debut, The Realistic Joneses, and one off, The Open House. His signature style--established with Thom Pain (based on nothing)--is deadpan wordplay. This off-kilter dialogue is even stranger when it's in the mouths of the starry cast: Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall, who all turn in remarkable performances, given that they have to deliver lines that seem to defy all the expectations of coherent stage speech. Sam Gold directs the proceedings with an admirably straight face, although the audience found the play hilarious.
The set—a suburban backyard surrounded by trees—somehow seems to exist in quotation marks. It is a cliché, a 3-D photo, somehow, vaguely, unreal. We meet a middle-aged couple jokily named Jennifer Jones (Collette—whose voice doesn't project well enough) and Bob Jones (Letts). A young couple has moved in next door, also named Jones: John Jones (Hall) and Pony Jones (Tomei—who somehow manages to look not a day over twenty).
Bob Jones is suffering from a rare neurological progressive disease that threatens to leave him in the "locked-in" state associated with ALS. The implication seems to be that, given his lack of emotional and verbal responsiveness to most things, he may already be locked-in. Curiously, John Jones also is suffering from the same sort of ailment. Is he a young version of Bob Jones? Is this some new horrible way of keeping up with the Joneses?
As wives go, Jennifer is patient, sympathetic and exasperated; Pony is ditzy and cute. Various mix-and-match attractions develop. People say random stuff like, "Moving is a pain." "Staying still is no picnic either." Or, "Did you hear me listening just then?" Or, "Maybe I should go to med school or get my hair cut." Or "I'm a totally unreliable person who deals with terror."
"Realistic" is the tantalizing word in the title: Eno seems to be commenting on his flat, hyper-real style, suggesting that most of life is not interesting or even rational, and that rarely does anyone speak sensibly, much less in heightened language. This makes the play both about ordinary people and about the American tradition of writing realistic dysfunctional family drama.
The Realistic Joneses bears a striking resemblance to another contemporary play about suburban America, Detroit, by Lisa D'Amour. In her play, a young couple move next door to a middle-aged couple and various similar weirdnesses ensues. D'Amour's play is more about socio- economics and Eno's play is more about philosophy and language. But in neither play do we find an old-fashioned plot nor a take-away message. And this might be a fine thing. Or not. It's as if Eno is speaking through John when he says, "Words really just don't do it for me anymore, anyway."
At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 /w, 45th St.