By Will Eno. A Mint Collective production. At the Cultch's Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, December 7. Continues until December 17
The Realistic Joneses is a fascinating script, but its virtues are obscured by some key choices in this production.
Bob and Jennifer live in a small town; near the start of the play, they meet John and Pony, a younger couple who have moved in next door. Before long we learn that both men have a rare degenerative neurological disease, but while Jennifer is a solicitous—and exhausted—caregiver to Bob, John has kept his illness a secret from Pony. The couples’ experiences become increasingly entangled in this meditation on intimacy, fear, and loss.
The apparently fictional Harriman-Levy Syndrome has an impact on its sufferers’ ability to use language, so it’s fitting—or ironic—that American playwright Will Eno has written a script so rich in wordplay. The dialogue is always slightly off-kilter, filled with non sequiturs and qualifiers. “You don’t need to tell the truth; just don’t lie,” says one character in an intimate moment, and another makes an observation that could describe much of the script: “It seems like we don’t ever talk. It’s like we’re just throwing words at each other.”
Sometimes those words are “realistic”, like the laundry list of symptoms and treatments that Jennifer shares with John when confiding about her husband’s illness. But if realism is what this play is going for, the casting poses some challenges. (There is no director listed in the program; Renée Iaci is credited as directorial consultant, but did not cast the roles.)
Joan Bryans is a terrifically sympathetic Jennifer, and her comic timing gives full play to Eno’s odd one-liners. Charles Siegel also gives a nuanced performance as Bob. But these actors are at least a generation older than the neighbours, which makes the flirtations that begin to emerge a very tough sell; the chemistry is simply not there.
There are challenges with the younger characters, too. In the early going, Peter Wilson’s John feels false, but as the evening settles in, we begin to see his relentless banter as a defence against terrifying vulnerability. Pony is a tough character to make sense of—“I don’t have an attention span,” she claims—and Kelly Sheridan’s portrayal lacks the sense of a coherent personality behind Pony’s scattered outpourings.
Vanka Salim’s set and lighting—especially in a scene in which John and Bob play with triggering the motion-sensor lights—work together with Zakk Harris’s bucolic sound design to create a peaceful atmosphere. It’s only when we peel back the layers that the sober truths are revealed. But I was perplexed more often than I was moved by this production.