Julian Meyrick helms Will Eno's dark existential comedy about neighbours, at Red Stitch
Will Eno is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic playwrights to come out of the US in years. Flirting with a naturalism that he constantly inverts or undermines, he manages to create deeply ambivalent psychological spaces, his characters often stuck awkwardly between the smug and the earnestly sincere. Red Stitch have staged him before, in the frankly disastrous Middletown. The Realistic Joneses looks for much of its running time to be heading the same way – irritating characters who speak an otherworldly gibberish rubbing each other up the wrong way for no discernible purpose – but it almost miraculously coalesces towards the end, and resolves in a kind of twilight profundity.
It opens on Jennifer (Sarah Sutherland) and Bob (Neil Pigot) Jones, sitting together on their porch, talking haltingly about the night sky. The tension in their marriage seems as much the result of Bob’s incredibly rare, increasingly debilitating neurological illness as it does the slow sloughing off of hope and novelty that comes from years of marital routine. When they are visited by their new neighbours, John (Justin Hoskin) and Pony (Ella Caldwell) Jones, they are forced into further awkward and halting exchanges that try everyone’s patience, the audience included.
Some of the banter is very funny: when Pony explains that her dad made up her name, Bob drolly replies, “I’m pretty sure it was a word before that”. But for every line that works there are at least two or three that sink, due in part to the brittleness of the delivery but also the blatant incredulity of the register. Characters are constantly parroting and contradicting each other in what seem like a series of micro aggressions, which might be credible in two couples who’ve known each other for years but is utterly implausible in complete strangers.
The character of John is the most irritating, and Hoskins is initially rather creepy in the role. He’s a fine actor – he was by far the best thing in last year’s Uncle Vanya for this company – and he manages to deepen and shift the character over the course of the play, but his opening scenes are so off-putting it tends to throw the realism off completely. Perhaps if Eno had made Pony a more sympathetic creation, more aware of her husband’s quirks and quicker to fill the holes he punches in the social contract, this could have worked, but she is almost as annoying as he. At one point she tells Jennifer – her new neighbour whose house she has just rocked up to unannounced – to stop talking because she’s boring them. It’s ludicrous.
Maybe Eno’s stated desire to “write a naturalistic and realistic play” is a deliberate furphy, designed to set up an expectation he has no intention of fulfilling. He must hang around with very odd people if he thinks this kind of dialogue is realistic. And certainly the fact that all the characters are Joneses has to be something of an inside joke. The plot contrivance that has two characters sharing the same incredibly rare neurological illness is also surely a knowing gag.
It’s here, though, that that miraculous transformation of the material occurs. Snideness and irascibility morph into something sadder and more truthful; the painful realisation that entropy and death are present in even our most vital moments begins to wash over the characters, and the resolution is beautifully nuanced and melancholy.
The performances are understated but quietly effective. Pigot nails Eno’s tonal shifts and subtext; he suggests a man slowly entombed in his neurological prison but still willing to catch at glimpses of light. Caldwell struggles early on with her character’s inconsistencies but strengthens as the writing deepens, and Hoskin pulls off the unlikely transformation from mental murkiness to mania with real skill. Sutherland is perhaps the strongest, in what is admittedly the most straightforwardly credible role on stage. Her Jennifer is wearied but stoic, gently deflecting her frustrations as she bears witness to her husband’s inevitable decay.
Meyrick – who knows Eno personally and has directed Pigot in one of the playwright’s earlier works – steers the play through its strange pathways but also labours the pace. Far too much of the first half, with its halting rhythm and tedious reliance on non-sequiturs, is droll to the point of atrophy. Gregory Clarke’s set and Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design are both rather innocuous and underwhelming, The whole production has an emergent power, and the later scenes are beautifully calibrated, but it’s hardly a smooth journey to these riches. Perhaps that is the point, that life is mostly a slog and the rewards fleeting; that satisfaction only ever comes to the unrealistic Joneses.