What was the Tony committee thinking? They nominate four shows for the Best Musical Tony but ignore the two best Broadway (there were better Off-Broadway) book musicals, IF/THEN and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Then they ignore Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES for Best Play category when it is the best Broadway (none better Off-Broadway this year) play of the season, while nominating fluffy ACT ONE or the clunky CASA VALENTINA. They have recognized decent hackwork while ignoring a really fine piece of writing. Never have I felt more strongly that the Tony awards are not to be taken seriously.
Like most really fine plays, THE REALISTIC JONESES is about language. When Jennifer Jones (Toni Colette) says to her husband Bob (Tracy Letts) that they need to talk to each other, Bob responds, "What are we doing? Throwing words at each other?" In a way, that's what all four Joneses are doing in this funny, touching, thought-provoking play. The two Jones couples are, in a sense throwing words at each other.
The characters in THE REALISTIC JONESES are like aliens from another planet who are trying to talk and act convincingly like earthlings, but aren't sure that what they say and do means anything they understand. They are aware of the literal meaning of words, but not sure the language adds up to any real human connection. There's a moment when John Jones (Michael C. Hall), holds Jennifer's arm during a chance meeting in a supermarket. The two act like they're not quite sure what such a gesture means, or if it means what it should mean. Bob is having sex with John's wife Pony (Marisa Tomei), but is it anything more than "an exchange of fluids? The four Joneses seem estranged from just about everything they say and do. Both Bob and John are suffering from a rare incurable disease, but find no commonality.
This is a play about attempts to communicate that aren't meaningful or even always decipherable to the participants, yet it is not a bleak play at all. It is very funny and also surprisingly upbeat. John says at one point that he can feel the life surging through his veins. Life, though puzzling and often lonely, is in itself occasionally joyful. The Joneses don't understand what they are feeling, but there is a closeness as they sit around a fire at the end of the play. Eno's play is also about the rifts and silences even in close marriages.
Why the title? Well, everyone in the play is a Jones. In some sense the play is realistic, another Eno addition to the canon of American domestic realism, but I think Eno means that the characters are realistic in their point of view. For all their quirks they are clear-eyed about their own limitations and the limitations of loved ones. Their responses to what they see and know may be a bit off-kilter, but the Joneses understand the limits of language and of connection even to those closest to us.
Like the best playwrights, Eno here turns everyday, often prosaic language into poetry. There's a delightful rhythm and lilt to the halting, very self-conscious language of his characters. The last play I saw of his, THE OPEN HOUSE, seemed terribly derivative. THE REALISTIC JONESES feels totally original and totally inspired.
Sam Gold has give the play just the right pace and tone and the cast could not be better. If Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall seem stronger than Colette and Tomei, it is because the men are better written, but the four work together as a fine ensemble.
While I would prefer to see this play in a more intimate setting, it's almost a miracle something this good is on Broadway. Shame on the Tony nominating committee.
THE REALISTIC JONESES. Lyceum Theatre. June 7, 2014.