PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Realistic Joneses — Well, You Know Eno
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new Will Eno play The Realistic Joneses.
Playwright Will Eno, a darling of Off-Broadway where they're not fussy about connecting the dramatic dots, manned up to Broadway April 6, settled snugly into the Lyceum with The Realistic Joneses and somehow stayed his old idiosyncratic self.
It's a definite case of stake-claiming by the heretofore "downtown voice," who has a lot to say (if not necessarily in the conventional — in fact, very patience-trying — way).
The evening is 90 minutes of small talk — writ large by a classy, committed, name-brand cast and Sam Gold, a director worth his weight in — and it's delivered by four of Eno's usual off-centered eccentrics, in this case two sets of next-door-neighbors both named Jones and living in "a smallish town not far from some mountains."
The exchanges — between neighbor and neighbor, much as between husband and wife — are surprisingly intimate and edgy, frequently funny and they grow progressively darker and deeper as the play winds its way to the finish line.
What's in this name? The older couple is Bob Jones (not the prophetic minister or his university) and Jennifer Jones (not St. Bernadette, though, as caretaker of the group and the most grounded person around, she does "suffer enough for the heaven of heavens"). The younger couple is John Jones and Pony Jones. That's right, Pony.
Because there is an older-versus-younger equation and because there is a little cross-coupling on the side, it's easy to think The Realistic Joneses are related to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — a passing thought seconded by the towering, growling performance of Bob by Tracy Letts, in his first Broadway appearance since winning the Tony for the most recent revival of Virginia Woolf.
In truth, Eno seems to be echoing a later Albee opus, A Delicate Balance, in which an unspoken terror starts to infect the characters. Here, males in the area with the last name of Jones are susceptible to a mysterious neurological malady leading to death.
At the opening-night after-party held at The Redeye Grill, the playwright appreciated the Albee allusion. "There's a little joke at the beginning where Michael C. Hall says, 'Oh, the new neighbors move in. It's like the world's oldest profession — I mean, the greatest story ever told — I mean, the oldest.' I'm aware it's a convenient scheme for a play to take place with some neighbors in residence and some new neighbors move in. I hadn't thought of A Delicate Balance — but I love that play.
His new bump-up-in-life — "Broadway playwright" — was still settling in. "In one way, I don't feel any different," he admitted, "just because most of the people that I work with here are people I've worked with before so that's been a very familiar process to work in that very quiet, steady serious way with really lovely fun people.
"So that's the same, but the size of the house is different. There will be 800 people there, and I won't recognize a soul, and that's a different thing from when I was starting out doing plays and I would recognize every single person in the audience, and I would be thinking, 'Oh, now I have to go see their thing next weekend.'"
Eno figured he has written five or six Off-Broadway plays — the latest being The Open House, which closed at the Signature two days before it received a Lortel nomination for Best Play. There was nothing about The Realistic Joneses, he confessed, that particularly screamed Broadway to him. "I've never thought of my plays in that categorization. I've just tried to write plays that were about people and about life as I know it and the world as I know it. I know the cast that we have, really responded to the play right off the bat and were interested in doing it, and that of course was really, really helpful in putting this together. There's a logic to the play for me, and I think the actors have all found that logic. It hasn't been easy, and they've worked very hard, but it's a clear line for them. To me, I can really feel and see it."
Toni Collette, returning to Broadway for the first time since The Wild Party 14 years ago, said she sees her Jennifer as the most realistic of The Realistic Joneses. "She's the most clear. She spends her life taking care of her husband, puts other people first, has a real sense of compassion, and, to be honest, seems to be the most sensible."
The constant chatter that seems to be going nowhere wasn't a problem for her. "When something is written well, it's actually not difficult to memorize. I think there's a clarity to this, something very accessible — not only to us but to anyone seeing it or reading it — and, when something has truth to it, it's easy to absorb.
"I just relate to the way Will Eno sees life, I think, which is very much a part of this play. It's called The Realistic Joneses, and it does reflect life in a very real way — or the way I see it, anyway. It's just so beautiful the way the play tackles the big, deep, kinda confronting parts of life, as well as the mundane, banal everyday-ness. It kinda tiptoes and transverses through them, and the balance is so lovely. It's very funny, and it's also very moving. It's very, very difficult to do that. I think Will's a genius."
Marisa Tomei as Collette's younger counterpart, the airhead Pony, is more than a one-trick-Pony in her rather unorthodox Good Neighbor policy, Tomei contended, offering as proof: "Well, I do have a line in the play that says 'the other night' and 'the other morning' so maybe about four times — maybe one too many for her taste."
She was very pleased to be part of this ensemble effort. "I think we all feel very lucky to be in Will's play. We love his writing. We respect him deeply. He's got a lot to say about the human condition. There's a great philosophy — and heart — and point of view—behind what he's trying to say. And there's a lot of laughter — some ba-dum-dum jokes, some jokes about the messes we find ourselves in. The title is a reflection of keeping up with the Jones and what kind of treadmill are we on with that."
At first, he found the Eno talk a tad daunting. "There were bits and pieces that were challenging in as much as these people communicated in non sequiturs from time to time, so if you tried to just follow the thought it was hard. But ultimately, no. I think Will's language has a logic all its own, but, once you click into that logic, it really all makes sense. It's so fun to have these words to say. To get that feedback from the audience every night — there's really nothing like it. It's invigorating.
"I think it's very funny all the way through, but I think it sneaks up on you on that other front and leaves you with a sense of mystery, and that's what I love about it."
As for the sickness that infects his character late into the play, Hall did crack a few books about it. "This is a fictional condition, but it's based on some real neurological conditions that people have," the actor was quick to point out. "I looked around. I read some about seizures and their aftermath. It was kinda wide open what we could do. I just tried to be specific as I could be about what his particular symptoms were, and where they affected him and how they affected his body and his head."
Letts was of a different mind about the malady. Simply put: "I think the illness Will talks about could be called dying, so it didn't pay to get too specific about symptoms. I love this play not only because it's very funny and it's great fun to do a new comedy, but I love it because there's a real heart and a real humanity at the center of it. There's no reason to do it without that. That Will has written an original American comedy is a thing to be celebrated. It's 90 minutes long, and, after August: Osage County and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it's a real pleasure to do a 90-minute-long intermission-less play — that's another thing I like about it."
Yet another is the fact that he gets to play the crank in the group. "I think the edge comes with the actor. I don't know if I can get rid of it. One of the fun things about this guy is that he's grumpy, and that's fun to play. He's also a man of few words, and, after playing George in Virginia Woolf?, I don't mind a man of few words."
Letts, who picked up the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for writing August: Osage County, just finished a new play. "I don't have a production lined up for it yet. It's called The Scavenger's Daughter. It's about the death of the Great Man — capital G, capital M."
Director Gold helmed the world premiere of The Realistic Joneses at Yale Rep. "I've been working on the play for a number of years. Will gave it to me when he was just starting to write it. I'm a huge fan of Will's. I'd follow him anywhere and do anything he wrote. It has been a great pleasure of being a part of this as he developed it."
Next for him: "I start a play on the 22nd called The Village Bike. It's for MCC at the Lortel. It's by Penelope Skinner. She's a Brit. It's her first experience in New York."
Brown, biding his time until his Tony nomination comes through for his gorgeous Madison County score, said that the cast of his Broadway-bound Honeymoon in Vegas (Rob McClure, Tony Danza, Brynn O'Malley, Nancy Opel, David Josefsberg and Catherine Ricafort) got so antsy waiting around for a theatre that they organized a couple of concerts of the show's songs for 54 Below (7 and 9:45 PM) April 7.
Leslie Uggams finished preparing her new act, "Classic Uggams," which, she said, "is not just classic songs but it's also about classic people I have worked with like Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. The Beatles and, of course, Marvin Hamlisch."
Elizabeth Ashley, who was in both of Richards' revivals of The Best Man and has a lifetime pass for these things, was glamorously in attendance, of course.
Between "Fashion Police," and the fourth season of "Joan and Melissa," Joan Rivers found time to come out for Toni Collette, "whom I'm so excited to see on Broadway."
Brian J. Smith, the Gentleman Caller of the recent The Glass Menagerie, and Jeremy Shamos, who has another week to go on Dinner With Friends, know where their next roles are coming from, but are contractually forbidden to reveal it right now.
Frederick Weller of Mothers and Sons and Sophie Okonedo of A Raisin in the Sun were congratulated on the glowing notices but confessed they hadn't read them yet. "Neil LaBute came to see the show today," Weller noted. He and the writer-director of his Reasons To Be Happy and The Shape of Things plan to be back on Broadway in the fall in The Money Shot, a drama about a porn film with a special problem.
Laura Osnes, a long way from Cinderella in The Threepenny Opera opening April 7 at the Atlantic, and Santino Fontana, one of the Moss Harts in Act One opening April 17 at the Vivian Beaumont, raced over from their matinees to make the opening.
Fontana seemed particularly tuckered. "When you see the show, you'll see why," he said. "It's a three-story set, and I'm constantly running up and down stairs. For the sake of my legs, I'm glad that this doesn't go on for hours. It says a lot about the character of Moss Hart. He was so determined to be successful in the theatre."
As if Rocky wasn't heavy-lifting enough, director Alex Timbers is busy trying to get David Byrne's epic Imelda Marcos musical, Here Lies Love, up and operative for its return to The Public. It starts previews there April 15 for a May 1 opening.
Tom Wopat said he was working on a Christmas album with his "Dukes of Hazzard" bro, John Schneider, and would be playing Iridium with his own band in July.
Brace yourself for Everyday Rapture 2. Right now, said Sherie Rene Scott, her "possible sequel" is called The Untitled Dick Scanlon/Sherie Rene Scott Prison Piece. "We'll do a workshop at Second Stage this summer," she promised.
The much-murdered Jefferson Mays of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder seemed to be holding up nicely after his matinee. "I seem to be still vertical and in possession of most of my faculties," he said after a short assessment.
Director Jo Boney said she finished the lab for Suzan Lori-Parks' new play, Father Comes Home From the War, and will do it again at The Public in the fall. And she added there may be an afterlife for her recent Small Engine Repair.
Also in attendance were David Costabile, David Cromer (also of Raisin), Eric Bogosian, T.R. Knight, Terrence McNally, Neil Pepe and Jeffrey Tambor.
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