Thursday 7 December 2017

Realistic Joneses tackles dread with wit & pathos & words-words-words chasing more words
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.
   Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Singer Gloria Estevan of Miami Sound Machine famously wrote in 1986 "There's something I've been trying to say to you / But the words got in the way." That, surely, is the meta-message of playwright Will Eno's 2-act 2014 script The Realistic Joneses.

The setting is a bucolic restful mountain town "Somewhere / Out there / Beneath the pale blue sky" as Linda Ronstadt put it back when. "Somewhere" is home to a clinic whose eponymous doctor is trying out experimental treatments for a rare neurological wasting disease he gave his name to, the Harriman Leavey Syndrome. Two men named Jones -- Bob and John -- have repaired to the town for treatments at his clinic. The disease deteriorates its victims relatively quickly, not dissimilar to the real disease known as ALS. Death is more than merely certain : it looms.

Kelly Sheridan (Pony), husband John (Peter Wilson), neighbour Jennifer (Joan Bryans) and her husband Bob (Charles Siegel) are the Joneses, who each and all have a jones about words, loss, loneliness & death.

Along the way they discover that in the face of the dread that such serious life-ending illness brings, their various efforts to communicate with their spouses are more like affliction than affection.  Chiefly their conversations are like scar tissue -- flesh wounds occasioned by endless miscue and off-target shots. Along the way the audience is peppered by life insights offered up casually, like hors d'oeuvres scattered about randomly at an awkward cocktail party no one really wants to be at. 

What the show brings to the stage : The critical comparisons between Will Eno and Samuel Beckett are so common as to be trite. Throw in some Edward Albee -- the character Pony is almost a clone of Sandy Dennis's Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- add a dash of Harold Pinter's one-off scene-scripts and you're in Eno territory for certain. Just made more contemporary -- post-GenX if not full-on social media saturated Millennial. 

Like many contemporary dramas, TRJ is a series of interconnected scenes that sequence one another. While Billy Bard's scenes normally switch up settings and venues as well as characters, these scenes all take place in the Sr. Jones's back yard or the Jr. Jones's kitchen. Eno is famous for his language nuances, his ear for non-sequitur, characters' verbal overdubs, syncopated syntax, a lot of "Just kidding!" kinds of banter, most of which point more to communication avoidance than engagement. His cadences are often likened to free verse poetry. The character depictions in TRJ are dead-centre accurate, reminding me instantly of the 1970's Robert Penn Warren poem "Waiting" [see Addendum #3].  

Production values that highlight the show : The Cultch's black box 75-seat room is ideal for an Eno play. The objective, if but one were to be picked, would be the dialogue : one wants and needs to hear & chew over & digest each and every syllable, nuance, dropped phrase, purposeful pause. Vanka Salim's set design was functionally plain, again suiting the Eno script to a T. As were Cheryl Siegel's costumes : sensible frump, as unpretentious as the characters. Renee Iaci acted as directorial consultant for this artists' collective under contract with Canadian Actors' Equity. Well-wrought theatre here no question.

Simple webbed summer chairs and a summer sky can't deny the desperation looming for the two neighbour couples both called Jones. Jennifer & Bob, Pony & John look both wistful and lost as they stare up wondering what God has in store as the men's neurological degeneration continues inexorably.
Photo credit : Nancy Caldwell
Acting pin-spots : Strong performances by each of the four principals. Listening to Peter Wilson, one could be forgiven thinking Stuart McLean had resurrected himself. Nice idiosyncratic stuff he stutters out. Joan Bryans' Jennifer brought to mind Downton Abbey's headmistress character Mrs. Hughes by Phyllis Logan, just with a Blighty accent instead of Scot. Her anger outbursts with just the right quantum of eff-word ejaculations were bristly good, but also her more empathic turns. Stumbly bumbly hubby Bob by UBC Theatre veteran Charlies Siegel -- "I don't want to know anything, I just want to get better!" -- was a sad charmer. And charm he did the Jr. Mrs. Jones played by Kelly Sheridan. The earlier comparison to Albee's Honey in both Eno's dialogue for her and her delivery of it just about says it all. 

Who gonna like : It is said the 3rd Monday in January is the "bluest day of the year", as in the most miserable 1/365. TRJ should be staged for that time instead of as a kick-off to the Festival of Lights brought on by Winter Solstice. Addendum #1 provides all the dialogue ammunition needed to prove that point. Golly! this is not rum-&-egg nog frippery : more like bad tequila spiked with kerosene (though some would argue that's a redundancy). And could the script be circumscised by 15 minutes or so? Surely.

Meanwhile Vancouver philosopher-muse Eckhart Tolle reminds us that "Identification with your mind...causes thought to become compulsive. Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don't realize this because everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal." His reflection simply tailgates and expands on Hamlet from Act 2, Sc. 2 where the tragic hero famously observes "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

So. Somewhere in a scrum of Shakespeare, Gloria Estevan and Eckhart Tolle is Will Eno's oh-so-clever play on words, lit.-&-fig, that is The Realistic Joneses. If the 20th century playwright spirits noted at the start of this piece are your favourites -- not to forget a wee hint of David Mamet's best sardonic wit reflected in some of Mr. Eno's lines, too -- this is a Must go! evening out on the Vancouver professional theatre boards.

I was embraced, entranced, affixed and at times stunned at the reach and grasp around marital desperation and desolation that Will Eno depicts and reflects for many in our midst. Brought out both "realistically" and metaphorically through the imminence of death from degenerating illness. Because death -- whether from painful acute sickness or plain-&-simple biologic entropy -- just is. Its ghost staring at us brings out precisely the "whatness" -- their ultimate karma -- that each person adds to this life for better or for worse.

Particulars :  Playwright Will Eno.  Produced by The Mint Collective of Vancouver, a Canadian Actors' Equity Association under the Artists' Collective policy.  At the Cultural Lab Theatre, 1895 Venables.  Run-time 120 minutes, including 15-minute intermission.  From December 7 - 17. Tickets & schedule information by phoning 604.251.1363 Noon - 6 p.m. weekdays, or via 

Production crew : Stage & Property Manager Jessica Hildebrand.  Set & Lighting Designer Vanka Salim.  Costume Designer Cheryl Siegel.  Sound Designer Zakk Harris.  Directorial Consultant Renee Iaci.  Design Consultant Robert Gardiner.  Graphic Designer & Program Sarah Siegel.  Production Manager Charles Siegel.  Photographer Nancy Caldwell.  Publicity Joan Bryans.

Performers :  Joan Bryans (Jennifer).  Kelly Sheridan (Pony).  Charles Siegel (Bob).  Peter Wilson (John).

Addendum #1 : Although I did not have access to a script of the play, from dozens of sources and my own note-taking I culled the following quotes that give considerable flavour to what is mostly sit-about, non-action occurring on stage :

Pony, upon meeting the older Joneses for the first time :
"I always wanted to live in one of these little towns near the mountains. So one night, he comes home and literally just says, literally -- um, I forget what you said exactly...".
"Just something about moving to one of these little towns near the mountains," John tells her.

Bob goes to look for wine glasses. Jennifer talks about the clinic + experimental treatments + a not-good outcome prognosis.
"I'm sorry, I just kind of blurted that all out!"
"That's all right," John replies. "That's what separates us from the animal. You never hear animals blurting things out. Unless they're being run over by a car or something."

After Jennifer confesses to Pony how tough dealing with Bob's illness is:
"Say no more," says Pony.
"Have you had experience with something like this?" Jennifer naturally responds.
"I just didn't want you to say any more," Pony replies flatly.

Bob and Jennifer, after Bob dodges some serious questions.
"It just seems like we don't talk," Jennifer says.
"What are we doing right now, math?" Bob replies.
"No, we're -- I don't know -- sort of throwing words at each other," Jennifer responds.

When Jennifer insists that they talk about Bob's disease and Bob demurs, she says :
"But we communicate pretty well, even without words."

In the grocery store John and Jennifer bump into each other.
"Well, hey, if it isn't you!"
"No it is, hi!"
"I'm just saying, you know, what if it wasn't?"
Jennifer appears eager to get on with her shopping.
"It's weird," John says, "you want this conversation to end, but I want it to keep going." Shortly he grabs her arm :
"What are you doing?" Jennifer asks, mildly confused.
"I don't know," John says. "Reaching out."
"Because," he responds, "and because you have pretty eyes. They're sad, but they're really pretty. They're good."
"Well, that's very -- I actually need glasses to read," Jennifer says, flustered.
"Interesting," John replies.
When Jennifer turns blunt about Bob's condition, John tells her : "You have a lot of composure." 
"Thank you." 
"Oh, you took that as a compliment, okay..." says John.

Later, recalling this earlier encounter, Jennifer tells John :
"You were funny and weird, and you made me feel better. And I remembered people can do that. That talking with someone can make you feel better."

When it becomes clear that loss of memory is affecting John as well as Bob, Pony says : "John and words -- forget about it."  “This was fun,” John says a second later. “Not fun but some other word.”

Pony, who's been left in the dark about John's illness tries a prayer looking for help to cope.
"This feels weird," she says, mid-prayer. "No offense. You probably just think I'm one of so many people. You're probably like, my God, what is this even about? Maybe you're going to burn everything down anyway. I don't know your crazy mind."

In another exchange, Bob asks John if when Jennifer came over to check on him when he had a seizure an evening earlier, whether "anything happened" : "There was a sort of humanness in the air," John says, "and we might have made tacos, I really don't remember."

When John says he has just discovered a company that prints transcripts of audio-books. "Wouldn't that just be the book?" Jennifer retorts with mild sarcasm.

Some time later John, who thinks horsing around will help keep the demons at bay with wife Pony says "We've kind of stopped talking. Words don't really do it for me anymore."  

For no obvious reason, Bob sneaks over to John's house at midnight and trips the motion sensor light. John is awake. They have a "mildly hostile chitchat". John points out a constellation, Bob joins in. 
"No, I'm looking at this part, you look over there!" John instructs him when Bob gazes in the same general direction as he. 
Then, later, after an exchange about their wives, John waxes : "Men! Who would have imagined two men standing staring at the stars and saying 'Men!'  Oh yeah, what position did you play in football? Do you ever cry, Bob?" 
"I should head back," Bob says.
"Yeah, get off my stupid rented property. It was great broaching the old questions with you."
"It was. I'll see you, John."
"Oh, hey, Bob? Pretend I said sonmething really sweet, okay? Like some gentle, little, good-night sort of thing."

In a kiss-&-make-up effort with John near the end, Pony blurts out a raft of confessions. "I heard some words in that...I wish there were less words in English!" John complains.

After a restaurant dinner when another HLS sufferer -- an albino named Elliott -- collapses in a pool of blood and dies at the table, the Joneses head back home where they sit looking up at the stars. "I don't think anything good is going to happen to us," Bob says. "But you know, what are you going to do?" Then he remembers he has mints in his pocket he got at the restaurant. "I like mints. Mint?" he says, smiling, and offers one to Jennifer.

-The End-

Addendum #2 : Excerpts from an American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco) 2016 interview by Shannon Stockwell with Will Eno on a web-page called "Words on Plays".

SS : Why "realistic" above all other possible adjectives? What's realistic about these characters? Is there anything that isn't realistic?

WE : My thought was that, in terms of trying to face death, which is an unreal or at the very least surreal proposition, any human response might be called "realistic". Also, I like the idea of that word "jones", as in craving or need. It's usually used in relation to drug addiction, but I think of it here in a more innocent way : the real needs and cravings we all have. What we might be able to reasonably expect from life and the world. But it has to do more with these two couples, the Joneses. Though we all might live in the middle of some serious illusions and delusions, from the inside it probably always feels like reality. I guess that's practically the definition of a delusion, that it seems like reality to the deluded. I think all of the Joneses are doing their best, are living with the maximum amount of reality that each can manage.

SS : What is the function of Harriman Leavey Syndrome in the play?

WE :  I wanted to create a disease that was particular enough that it would be seen and felt as a problem, but mysterious or foreign engouh that it could stand for the simple looming fact of mortality. It's important for it to be degenerative, because that's how it goes. We all have to face this process -- aging, sickness -- that, in some ways, is the opposite of life, but, importantly, we are still alive while it is happening, and we have some time and a lot of choices about how to face it.

SS : Does the name "Harriman Leavey" come from anywhere?

WE : Well, I hope it sounds like it might be a guy who is a researcher in neurological diseases. I mean, I have all sorts of reasons for things, but I don't know if they're interesting or if my theories actually play out in the real world. "Harriman" is a very stable and sort of WASPy name, but there's also something sort of frantic about it. "Leavey" is close to "leaving". That's what you're always looking for : something that works in the world you've created and that also might have some deep, unconscious resonance with people.

SS : How does your relationship with language manifest itself in The Realistic Joneses ?

WE : I think people are generally sort of brilliant. I think language is an amazing human invention. And I think people in an audience can follow things and flesh things out with incredible speed. So with all that in mind, I just try not to make too many mistakes or use words lazily. I try to use language in a way that is specific enough to satisfy the logical part of the brain, but jagged enough or gentle enough that the heart and the stomach can also get involved.

SS :  How personal are your plays?

WE :  They come from thoughts and feelings and experiences I've had. Not so much from the news or current events. I've always thought that the forms a playwright uses in his or her plays are probably just as expressive and even as autobiographical as the content he or she fills them with. I would say the form of The Realistic Joneses could be described as anxious and slightly repressed, but searching for light and air and peace, if that doesn't sound too crazy.

Addendum #3 : Albeit I included this poem in another BLR Addendum 2-3 years back, I re-include it for purposes of The Realistic Joneses. It is an uncanny poetic representation of the play. But unlike the play scripted between 2008-2014, the poem is 40-ish years old, published in The Atlantic about the time playwright Will Eno hit Grade 4 still in short pants. 

Without a doubt, however, he could easily be "accused" of modelling TRJ after it verse-for-verse. And that is high praise indeed. 

As well, the realistic / naturalistic soundscape of The Mint Collective production with its crickets, owls, church chimes, passing diesel locomotive, highway cars, crows & dogs matches the mood of the poem precisely.

Waiting, by Robert Penn Warren

You will have to wait. Until it. Until The last owl hoot has quavered to a 

Vibrant silence and you realize thre is no breathing 
Beside you, and dark curdles toward dawn. Until

Drouth breaks, too late to save the corn, 
But not too late for flood, and the dog-fox, stranded

On a sudden islet, barks in hysteria in the alder-brake. 

Until the doctor enters the waiting room, and 
His expression betrays all, and you wish 
He'd take his God-damned hand off your shoulder. Until

The woman you have lived with all the years 
Says, without rancor, that life is the way life is, and she

Had never loved you, had believed the lie only for the sake of the children. 

Until you become uncertain of French irregular verbs 
And by a strange coincidence begin to take Catholic instruction from Monsignor O'Malley, who chews a hangnail. Until

You realize, truly, that our Saviour died for us all, 
And as tears gather in your eyes, you burst out laughing,

For the joke is certainly on Him, considering 
What we are. Until

You pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and 
Admire the inwardness, as beautiful as inflamed flesh

Or summer sunrise. Until you
Remember, suprisingly, that common men have done good deeds. Until it

Grows on you that, at least, God
Has allowed us the grandeur of certain utterances. 


1 comment:

  1. This is lovely!!! Beautiful piece as usual... I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, the perspectives, but especially the descriptions and narratives...
    Aluminium Scaffolding Rental In Pune