It’s the words, stupid. That’s what Will Eno keeps telling us in his hypnotically quirky plays. What separates the men from the beasts? The words. What saves humanity from extinction? The words. What keeps us from killing ourselves? The words. So what happens when language starts slipping away? That’s the existential nightmare that this madly interesting scribe depicts in “The Realistic Joneses.” Operating under the gold standard set by helmer Sam Gold, the marvelous cast — Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, and Marisa Tomei — savors every syllable as if it were their last.
When first sighted, sitting under the unseen stars in the backyard of their nondescript house in some rural backwater, Bob and Jennifer Jones, the middle-aged couple played by Letts and Collette, seem like a perfectly ordinary, if rather bored married couple. Jennifer’s mild grievance — “It just seems like we don’t talk” — and Bob’s impatient response — “What are we doing right now? Math?” — is the kind of ritualistic exchange between long-term partners that makes them seem completely normal.
Ritual, in an Eno play, is the way we get on with the business of living our lives without calling down the wrath of the gods. Routine conversations and habitual social routines are so essential to survival that when some non-conformist in Eno’s universe refuses to get with the program, as happens in his play “Middletown,” he’s likely to be shot dead.
Aside from making charcoal sketches on the walls of our caves, language is the way we pass along these rituals. But Bob’s memory seems to be slipping and he’s beginning to lose his words. So Jennifer’s insistence that they discuss the matter is the first hint that something unspoken, but bigger than a breadbox, is looming over their heads. “But we communicate pretty well, even without words,” she says, as if that bald-faced lie were true.
The subject is temporarily shelved when the younger couple played by Hall and Tomei (and also named Jones) who have moved into the house next door pay an impromptu and quite awkward visit. John Jones is a bit of a nerd and his wife Pony (that is, indeed, her name) is a total flake, so simple stupidity might account for their inept social skills.
Letts plays crusty-old-guy to perfection, and his deadly droll line readings of Bob’s rude responses to the younger pair’s clumsy conversational overtures are terribly unkind, but also terribly funny. So are Collette’s deadpan efforts as Jennifer to mask her own amusement. When John announces he’s discovered a company that prints transcripts of audio-books, the incredulous tone of Collette’s comeback — “Wouldn’t that just be the book?” — smartly conveys Jennifer’s attitude toward her new neighbors.
Unfortunately, this kind of cutting wit, snappily delivered by a couple of certifiable stars like Collette and Letts, lulls the aud into thinking they have walked into a brittle comedy of manners. (Cue the patters of applause for every damned laugh line and, less plausibly, the knee-jerk impulse to clap after every scene, however brief.) Eno does write comical lines and witty exchanges, but his humor is not the reassuring stuff of sitcoms. It’s the desperately funny chitchat of political prisoners awaiting the hangman.
Once the dead squirrel makes its appearance, however, the humor darkens and things turn eerie at the Jones house. At both the Jones houses, actually, since David Zinn’s expansive set draws back from the comforting blackness of the backyard to take in both rather sterile homes, and, when Mark Barton’s austere lighting design allows, opens up to the frightening white infinity of the theater’s blank back wall.
Whatever the exact origin of this mysterious neurological disease nibbling away at Bob’s memory, along with his motor skills, it seems to have infected John as well. (“John and words — forget about it,” Pony says.) And before long, both men are stumbling around the stage looking for their lost thoughts and the words to express them, or possibly hide behind them.
John, who thinks that “horsing around” is the way to keep painful realities at bay, eventually admits that “words don’t really do it for me anymore.” Time and again, though, he becomes almost eloquent in his attempts to shield Pony from the swift progression of his disease. “People getting moody and going blind — it’s just not really her thing,” he sweetly explains. Hall is a whiz at doing nice-sweet-guy with a kinda-strange-and-very-sad vibe, and he brings a lot of nuance to a role that could easily be manhandled into cuteness.
Tomei shares Hall’s facility for subtle character shading. Her Pony is every bit the airhead she initially appears to be, but behind her vapid game face is another, deeper intelligence that knows — and dreads — what’s happening to John and to their marriage. “I’m taking these little breaths, so no one notices me,” she says, which, like a lot of dumb things she says, sort of makes sense.
The two thesps are pretty perfect in a “game,” actually, a very moving exchange, in which Pony and John tease each other with their deepest fears. “Terror,” “Abandonment” and “Loneliness” bring on much merriment. But in the end, no matter how hard they pretend to be real, these Joneses, like their neighbors, only manage to be “realistic.”
The all-star cast not only brings out character nuances that would be lost in a less savvy production, they might even manage to keep the house open for much if not most of the show’s limited run. But word is bound to get out that Eno’s tragi-comic sensibility is hard to digest for anyone who hasn’t already acquired a taste for it. So, while there’s an air of mystery about this piece, the biggest mystery is what this downtown show is doing on Broadway in the first place.