Sunday, December 28, 2014


By Toby Zinman



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. 

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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