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Realistic Joneses at ACT: Beneath a Quirky Comedy, Deep Fears of Mortality

03/19/2016 03:03 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2016
  • Leo Stutzin Retired arts editor and theater critic, Modesto Bee

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James Wagner, Allison Jean White, Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp in The Realistic Joneses.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Words don't come easily to the four personalities who populate Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses. And when they do come, very often those words communicate the failure of communication itself.

That's hardly new to theater of the past six decades, but familiarity doesn't make it easier to handle. In ACT's current production in the Geary Theater, banal exchanges provoke laughter, stupid exchanges provoke laughter, non sequiturs provoke laughter. But the play is hardly a conventional comedy that exists solely to dispense conventional gags.

Despite the hilarity, which is more than ample, playwright Eno, director Loretta Greco and the cast have darker matters on their minds. The laughs can't dispel persistent questions: What's troubling these seemingly normal, reasonably intelligent people; why can't they connect?

Bob and Jennifer Jones (Rod Knapp and Rebecca Watson) are in their 40s, and long-time residents of a bucolic town near a mountain range somewhere in these United States. Neighbors John and Pony Jones (James Wagner and Allison Jean White), who look to be in their mid-20s, are newcomers. The Joneses are not related.

Their limited interaction takes place in the grassy yard between the two-story homes that the couples occupy, although small changes of scenery and lighting on occasion suggest indoor locations.

The play opens and closes on nights that are clear and dark, with too-bright stars glowing through a black backdrop. In the hour and 45 minutes between those bookends, longings, fears and frustrations surface, but little changes and nothing is solved.

Eno's dialogue has the ring of contemporary American speech, though at times it sounds too glib for a thoughtful comedy-drama.

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A tender moment for the younger Joneses: White and Wagner

When we meet the older couple, Jennifer is straining to make conversation with Bob, with little success. Their silences probably last as long as their speeches, if not longer, and suggest a good deal about the pair.

Still, she has to verbalize, "It seems like we don't talk." And Bob has to reply, "What are we doing right now? Math?"

As a laugh-generating couplet, the phrasing works. As revelation of character, it adds nothing that hasn't already been laid out.

A few minutes later, after the unexpected arrival of John and Pony, Eno's weakness for a cheap laugh crops up once more, in spades: Both visitors dash to the home's bathrooms, separately and with urgency.

Bob's query: "What are they doing there?"

Jennifer's response: "I'd guess it's one of two things."

The audience's reaction: gleeful howls.

Thankfully, headier currents emerge fairly swiftly, unmasking fears of mortality and thinly shielded worries about fates that are necessarily unknown and unpredictable. To varying degrees, in addition, we discover that all the characters share bonds and needs brought on by loneliness.

Their fears of death have rational grounds, but I'll refrain from offering details. That would be something of a spoiler to anyone who attends.

Those fears never drag the proceedings into gloom, however. In crisp, quirky and usually funny scenes, characters more often draw comfort and support from new acquaintances rather than from their spouses. Often stumbling, they disclose vague misgivings over life paths not taken or careers not pursued, accept compassionate gestures that come with or without words, and move on to whatever will come next.

If the play has an anchor of stability, it comes from Watson's heartfelt portrayal of Jennifer. Dealing with Bob, whom she loves and sustains, is no easy task. As expertly played by Knapp, he suffers most visibly from the malady that all fear, and expresses his condition through stilted speech patterns and cynicism. In contrast, Wagner and White bring youthful energy and liveliness to John and Pony without undercutting the uncertainties that each harbors about himself or herself or about their relationship. Their essential cheeriness may be self-deceiving, but it's infectious. Individually and collectively, the performances draw humanity as well as that aforementioned laughter out of The Realistic Joneses.

For anyone who's taken by Eno's style and craftsmanship, ACT's offering will get company in San Francisco in a few days. The playwright's Middletown, an enigmatic comedy that has been likened to Our Town, runs March 24-April 23 at Custom Made Theatre on Powell Street.

The Realistic Joneses runs through April 3 in ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$105, from 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org

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