It's hard to have a conversation after you leave The Realistic Joneses. Everything that comes out of your mouth – and the mouths of those around you – suddenly sounds tremendously odd. That's because the characters in Will Eno's 2012 play spend an hour and a half leaving no cliché undissected, taking each other's metaphors literally, and exploring the unsettling depths of small talk. Take how two characters greet each other at a salsa-sampling stall at the local grocery store, for example.
John Jones: Well, hey, if it isn't you.
Jennifer Jones: No, it is. Hi.
John Jones: I'm just saying, you know, what if it wasn't?
The Realistic Joneses, now getting a poignant and pitch-perfect production at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, concerns two middle-aged couples with the same surname.
Bob (Tom Barnett) and Jennifer Jones (Susan Coyne) begin the play sitting on lawn chairs in the dark, not communicating – or, rather, communicating about not communicating. "It just seems like we don't talk," says Jennifer, trying to get her ailing husband to open up.
"What are we doing now?" Bob asks in response. "Math?"
"No, we're – I don't know – sort of throwing words at each other."
If this dialogue seems flat or unfunny on the page, the key to its success on the stage in director Richard Rose's production is that the actors deliver it deadpan and in earnest – as if they were genuinely baffled by the English language and asking serious questions. (Barnett is particularly good at seeming uncertain of how to simply exist.)
Bob and Jennifer's meta-bickering is soon interrupted by other Joneses: John (Patrick McManus) and Pony Jones (Jenny Young), who have recently started renting a house down the road and have dropped by with a bottle of wine to introduce themselves.
Everything about this set-up will seem familiar to regular theatregoers – but, by jumping over the usual exposition, Eno makes meeting the neighbours into an existential and uneasy situation and, as with his language, the familiar becomes strange. That "realistic" in the playwright's title sits there as a taunt, asking you to consider whether the way these four Joneses interact might be recognizable, and whether the realism you're used to seeing on the stage is actually that real.
There is a plot, of sorts. Both couples have moved to this unnamed mountain town for the same reason – a nearby clinic has an experimental treatment name for an irreversible and degenerative nerve disease with a complicated name that Bob and John are afflicted with (and that does not really exist). It leads to confusion, fits and night sweats and chills, a little like life generally does.
Both Bob and John are avoiding the disease in their own way. Bob doesn't want to hear anything about it – and lets his wife take in doctors' information and set up his schedule of pills and therapies. John, on the other hand, doesn't want to say anything about it – and has kept his wife in the dark about why they've suddenly moved to the mountains.
There's not much more to The Realistic Joneses than that – things happen, encounters take place, a light that one Jones couple throws out is fixed by the other. Everyone ends up in roughly the same place at the end that they are at the beginning – perhaps a little more enlightened, or maybe a little bit more in the dark.
On a stage covered in artificial turf that also challenges the title's claim to realism, Charlotte Dean's shallowly naturalistic set rotates between the inside of one couple's house and the outside of the other's, blurring the lines between the Joneses. Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design lets us hear specified off-stage noises through a warped filter – making hot-air balloons that Jennifer spots in the sky, for instance, sound like passing panic attacks.
As artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, Rose has rarely put on American plays – indeed, this is the first since 2011. But Rose obviously appreciates Eno, having previously programmed his Pulitzer-nominated monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) in 2006.
The Realistic Joneses, which played on Broadway in 2014 and escaped without a single Tony Award nomination, is confusing at first, then riotously funny for a while – but eventually its own odd universe simply starts to seem possible. I've seen Eno's work go wrong in other hands and come off as ostentatiously off-kilter, over-extended parody, but Rose and his superb cast keep the weird rooted enough to prevent that. Barnett, Coyne, McManus and Young find a common, awkward stage language that suggests they're a real ensemble, rather than a cast thrown together for a particular production.
It may be a bridge too far for them to get us to truly feel for these characters, however – and the play and production do try and fail on this point. (Something about the terror in Young's skittish Pony resonates, though.)
And yet Eno's is an original theatrical voice – presented here in a production that makes it hard to get out of your head.
The Realistic Joneses runs through Dec. 18 at the Tarragon Theatre.