Ever feel like words fail? That nothing matters? That our little efforts to cope are ephemeral and worth mainly smart-aleck retorts to cope with the existential angst of everyday life?
Well, so does award-winning playwright Will Eno, who tackles these ideas in The Realistic Joneses. The witty and original slice-of-life drama has all the elements of "Theatre of the Absurd" but in a realistic setting. And no, you don’t have to worry about sitting through an Ionesco play where people might as well be speaking in tongues.
Director Jennifer Dean deftly orchestrates this quartet of excellent actors who play two couples in a mountain town who each have struggles. Bob and Jennifer Jones (played by 4th Wall co-artistic directors Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl—both excellent) are dealing with Bob’s mysterious illness, which is causing him to decline both mentally and physically. John and Pony Jones (played by Drake Simpson and Vaishnavi Sharma) move in next door.
Part of the intrigue is trying to figure out how things will go in this play as both couples grapple with issues, such as death, work, fidelity—you know, the usual suspects.
Kevin Rigdon’s set and lighting designs are perfect, from the sliding glass doors to the circular red-wooded picnic tables that you probably had in your backyard in the '80s. Everything is realistic because these are the accouterments of the realistic Joneses, who must go to the doctor and pick up meds and drink wine with the neighbors. But they, like all of us, Eno suggests, do it in an absurd and absurdist world.
While the situations are realistic, this play is no predictable domestic drama. What will ultimately freak you out—probably a few hours later once the subtlety of Eno's words has sunk into your bones a bit—is that even with the realistic setting, life is ultimately absurd. Everything we do, from bringing out the glasses so you can share a drink to fixing a lamp, is our attempt to put order into the chaos of life.
Yes, it’s a heavy theme, but Realistic Joneses is never heavy-handed. Tobin-Lehl is completely believable as the exhausted but determined caretaker of her husband. There's something heroic about her, as she has given up her job in accounting (a perfect choice, as she has trouble “accounting” for how Bob’s illness should be handled). Bob, also realistically, checks out of facing in his illness, frequently making choices that constitute a profound denial of his situation. He’s frustrating, but often very funny, so we care what happens to him.
Drake Simpson keeps us on edge as John Jones, with his flippant wordplay, his mock self-deprecation, and his essentially defensive take on life. Simpson is an amazing actor (oh, how I loved him in Lobby Hero) who embraces the skepticism that the absurdism of life requires. He understands that existence is reacting rather than acting since everything ends, and nothing makes much of a difference.
While John and Pony Jones seem quirky, they force Bob and Jennifer to acknowledge others in their claustrophobic existence. And that is the silver lining in this dark and sometimes satiric comedy: at least we have human connections, even if we make complete messes of them.
As Bob says near the end of the play, “I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us, but what are you going to do?” Maybe we really don’t have purpose, but Eno reminds us that we must try, and 4th Wall’s efforts are a marvel to watch.
Runs thru Feb. 8 at the Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. Tickets start at $17. More info and tickets at 4thwalltheatreco.com.