Meet the Joneses. And meet the Joneses again. They’re two couples that share more than a surname in Will Eno’s weird and wonderful play, getting its world preem at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theater. Eno has a field day with existential dualities that come on like doppelgangbusters. High-profile cast (Parker Posey, Tracy Letts), hip helmer Sam Gold and a seemingly more accessible — and very funny — work assures a route to Gotham.
But a tightening of the wordplay and more heat — or at least warmth — to the characters may be necessary for this Rep-commissioned work to cross over from the Eno repertory of quirky, cool loners and reach a wider audience.
Eno, Pulitzer finalist for the solo show “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” goes domestic with a story about two suburban couples with the same last monikers, similar homes and mutual rhythms of speaking. Jennifer (Johanna Day) and Bob (Tracy Letts) are an older couple, whose relationship is strained as they deal with his degenerative health issue.
Enter new neighbors Pony (Parker Posey) and John (Glenn Fitzgerald), a short-attention-span couple with offbeat sensibilities and an affinity for twisting words into linguistic pretzels.
John also has the beginnings of the same neuro-illogical disease that causes him to zone out, pass out and, in one frightening moment, lose his amazing dexterity of language. To deal with the unspoken reality, Pony retreats into a foggy drift of denial — and even attempts prayer as she initiates a one-way chat with the Almighty. As Bob and Jessica continue their delicate dance of acceptance and avoidance, both find themselves strangely drawn to the alternative Joneses.
Language is both the couple’s escape and their salvation as they go on with their lives, as they ponder cosmic questions as well as riff on daily minutia — and elicit some big laughs from aud. Eno’s familiar sudden-shifting between profound and playful verbiage is delightfully disarming and sometimes awfully funny.
But eventually this screwball pitch, overused in a few scenes, grows wearisome and glib. The most moving moments are played out in the work’s silences and in its images of fear, pain and helplessness. An extended hand from one character to another becomes an epic gesture. Terror is something not shouted — or even quipped — but whispered into lovers’ ears. There’s almost a spiritual comfort in a tableau of neighbors sitting in lawn chairs listening to a sad song on a transistor radio.
The quartet of perfs not only master Eno’s idiosyncratic text but the spaces in between the lines. Posey’s natural off-centeredness beautifully compliments Pony’s charms and fears.
Letts once again shows his considerable acting chops and grounds Bob in a no-nonsense gruffness that also allows for a poignant sense of longing. Day paints a vividly human picture of a wife trying to cope but who has her own unspoken needs. Fitzgerald is terrific in the character with the most dramatic arc, as the husband trying to hold it together amid life’s tragic absurdities.
Production’s deliberate artifice is supported by David Zinn’s set and costumes, Mark Barton’s unnatural light (and amusing use of darkness), and Ken Goodwin’s sound design.
As characters grow deeper into themselves and each other, they achieve a zen-like acceptance in the mysteries of their shared humanity. As one character earlier says, “There is a lot to not know.” In “The Realistic Jones” the search for beauty, peace and meaning is not just in the vastness of space, but in the pondering of life’s little pleasures, like an after-dinner mint. It’s in the not-knowing that is unforgettable.