A random town somewhere in the American Southwest is the correct setting for Pulitzer Prize nominee Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses, directed here in Seattle by Paul Budraitis for the consistently stellar New Century Theatre Company.
I've only visited the region once, but by my sights the landscape is aggressively monochromatic, and yet it pops with cactus flower and sunsets that look like spilled paint. The climate is life-givingly sunny, but life-threateningly dry. The place is abundantly austere, organically abstract, warm but loveless. This confluence of contrasts and paradoxes reflect the general state of the world of Eno's play, which had me variously chuckling and nodding throughout the show in pained acceptance at the cosmically meaningless enterprise of human existence.
Whenever the circular saw of an existential crisis begins whirring inside my brain, I always think of these immortal lines of poetry from "Phantom Camera," the title poem from a very good book by Jaswinder Bolina: "Whatever happens here happens for a reason. It so happens / it's not a very good reason." My answer to the question those sentences evoke involves the biological imperative plus my preferred version of a line from W.H. Auden's September 1, 1939: "We must love one another and die."
That answer soothes me enough to get through the rest of lunch or whatever, but there's still the problem of figuring out how to "love one another." That's the challenge facing the two couples at the center of The Realistic Joneses.
The Joneses have a lot in common. They both, as the title suggests, have the same last names—Pony and John Jones; Bob and Jennifer Jones. They've both moved out to the desert to work on their marriages, which are both being tested by communication issues.
Bob has recently been diagnosed with "Harriman Leavey Syndrome," a fictional nerve disease that forces him to speak only in the most concrete of ways, sort of autistically, I guess. Jennifer has given up her job and is trying to be a good caregiver, but she struggles to figure out how to give care to someone whose so verbally careless with her feelings. John also plays the role of the caregiver in his relationship with Pony, who self-describes as impulsive and childlike.
By afflicting Bob with a disease that renders him guileless, Eno cleverly creates a Beckett-like, absurdist nightmare (aka reality) that still retains all the advantages of a realistic narrative play about marital strife, which ends up satisfying the mind's hunger for intellectual nutrition and the body's desire to know whether boy is going to stay with girl.
Because of this genius set-up, even the most pedestrian lines sound profound. At one point, Bob claims to suffer from an ice cream headache. "Did you just eat ice cream?" Jennifer asks. "I wish," Bob replies. If you've ever experienced a specific pain that had no specific origin, you know exactly what Bob is getting at here.
The whole play can almost be summed up by a line Peter Dylan O'Conner delivers in his charming and quietly heartbreaking portrayal of John. After meeting Bob and Jennifer for the first time he says, "This was fun. Not fun, but some other word."
Or maybe this line from Bob, which Whitfield delivers with hope in his voice: "I don't think anything good is going to happen to us. But what are you going to do?"
It's so hard to maintain this philosophical and yet light tone and still project real human emotion at the same time, but every performer nails it in NCTC's production, which isn't such a surprise given the company's reputation for fine acting.
So go for the good acting. Go for Andrea Bryn Bush's bold set, the unfinished quality of which reflects the unfinished nature of the marriages between the couples in the play. Go because it's cathartic to watch people wonder whether it matters to finish a sentence, or announce a feeling, or work on something as insignificant to geological history as a marriage. Go because for some reason—maybe not a very good one—it does, and plays as fresh and bizarre and linguistically inventive as this one provide some evidence of that.