Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, 4th Wall Theatre Company's co-artistic directors, as Bob and Jennifer Jones in the company's production of The Realistic Joneses

“THE QUESTION IN THIS PLAY is really, 'How do you live?'” says director Jennifer Dean about Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, opening this week at 4th Wall Theatre Company. “It’s about relationships, and how we look at life in the face of devastating illness.”
 
Houston audiences who know Eno’s work from Catastrophic Theatre's productions of Wakey, Wakey and Tragedy might remember his tendency to avoid tidy conclusions. Eno's also known for plays with plots and characters that are absurdist and satirical, so theatergoers might be surprised that The Realistic Joneses feels a bit more conventional.
 
The action centers around two couples, neighbors who are both named Jones. John and Pony have just moved to a small town where they meet their middle-aged neighbors, Bob and Jennifer. While the younger couple has come to the area seemingly on a whim, the elder pair move years ago so Bob could receive specialized care for a degenerative disease.
 
As they grapple with complexities of marriage, communication and illness, the couples discover they have more in common than their last name.
 
The Chicago Tribune noted the play’s “cerebral humor” in a production there last year. Its 2014 Broadway incarnation led Charles Isherwood of The New York Times to write that the play’s “short scenes … have the shape and rhythms of sketches on Saturday Night Live rather than those of a traditional play.”
 
All that gives Dean a great canvas on which to lay her director’s touch.
 
“It’s so exciting to do this,” she says. “When we read the script, it wasn’t just words on a page. This is living. Eno’s writing is so good, and it’s been a blessing to work with 4th Wall. They’ve really poured a lot into me as a director, and I’m grateful for that.”
 
She says the theater’s intimate space makes the action of the play, in which both Joneses confront mortality and illness, much more in-your-face for the audience. 
 
“That proximity means the audience essentially becomes part of the show," she says. "It’s like you’re a fly on the wall listening to this conversation. But there’s also a lot of stillness in this play, and in a close space like 4th Wall, that stillness becomes riveting.”

Dean says she thinks audiences will enjoy looking in on the lives of these very different couples, and she imagines the show might push them to ponder the things they fear or the anxieties they face in their own lives. While illness is the existential threat here, Dean realizes for some people, that might be a metaphor for something else they might be dealing with personally. 

“It’s a gut check,” she says of the play. “I think people will probably pause and ask themselves, ‘Am I really connecting to the people I love, and others around me in my life?’”

Runs Jan. 17–Feb. 8 at the Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. Tickets start at $17. More info and tickets at 4thwalltheatreco.com.

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