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Realistic Joneses

February 23rd, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Realistic Jones

Steve Wagner photography

Realistic Joneses at Dobama, Steve Wagner photographer

Why realistic Joneses? Perhaps the sidelong look at our neighbor has turned more to issues of plain old health and sanity rather than that of material wealth? Perhaps Eno is touching on the reality that many of us are floundering around in the same pool and that any aspirational measure of superiority—-or fear of inferiority-—has long given way to something much more frightening.

Both sets of male characters have a mysterious disease that causes pain, affects their vision, and undermines their memory. Dementia? Something else… But as memory is suspect, this affects virtually every aspect of each of the two male characters, making them impossible to trust. The blindness that each experiences, while certainly medically disconcerting, also points, metaphorically, to a troubling set of character issues—-certainly Oedipus would have a thing or two to say about the nature of blindness.

The characters, all around, are worth comparing because Eno uses two sets of couples—each in a similar set of circumstances (but at different ages). This sets up comparisons of gender relationships, age relationships, generational attitudes, as well as cross comparisons between how the couples work internally. The men, for instance, are predictably resistant to speaking about how they feel or what they feel, but mask it in different ways: the older male Jones—-Bob (Joel Hammer), resists talking at all about his feelings, fears, etc., mostly by gruff barking, harrumphing, or deflecting defensively—pushing any emotional engagement right back at his wife—-Jennifer (Tracee Patterson); the younger male Jones—-John (Chris Richards), resists talking about his feelings, fears, etc., by engaging in verbal puns, non sequiturs, and rhetorical question that, often as not, are barbed jabs at whomever else is around: a method that works remarkably well with his wife/girlfriend/significant other—-Pony (Rachel Zake), who is oblivious to nearly everything going on around her.

The characters are representations and commentaries on our current cultural condition. As funny as they may often be, it is a bit depressing. Pony, certainly, is cause for consternation. If her hold on reality and competence were to be judged by ten strands of hair, I’d say that nine of the strands were snapped already. Pony is flighty, airy, inconstant, and largely indifferent—-especially to anyone with a disease or health condition—-whom she’d prefer to avoid entirely. In short, Pony is very much a child. John, her SO, is overly confident and opinionated, though he immediately admits that his opinion are based on nothing and many not even be correct. It is my assumption then that Eno is pointing to something very frightening about our society: inattentive, unconcerned with truth, uncommitted, etc. And yet, despite these flaws, the pair of characters is human, emotionally vulnerable, and clearly hurting—-thus deserving of compassion.

Bob is battling his own mortality and reckoning with a disease progression that he cannot control and one that is not predictable. It is one thing to suffer from a disease whose progression is clear, with markers by which you can judge your own health or lack thereof. But when the disease is unpredictable, whose symptoms affect memory and, thus, personality, the effect is to shake one’s sense of self. Bob is angry, an anger that he levels on his wife, Jennifer. He is also defensive, and unwilling to even discuss his thoughts, fears, and emotions with his wife. On the whole, Bob is inconsiderate, cranky, and often just mean. He’s lucky, however, in the love of Jennifer, who is filled with empathy, and willing to tolerate much. Strangely, Bob finds his softer side with Pony, as well has interest in speaking about this thoughts, fears, and emotions, a fact that leads to an affair with Pony. It is likely Pony’s complete indifference that leads Bob to this attraction. The surreptitious relationship between Bob and Pony is not surprising, in that these two characters are the most self-involved and seemingly indifferent.

John suffers from the same malady as Bob, with the same set of unpredictable symptoms, however, in Pony, John has a “spouse” that is not empathetic at all. In fact, it is clear that John hasn’t even bothered to tell Pony what is happening to him, for fear that she will run away. Pony evinces no courage. Strangely, or perhaps predictably, this set of character flaws in Pony and Bob lead John and Jennifer to each other. Though they do not have a physical affair, one can argue that they do have an emotional affair. It is clear that John receives what he needs from Jennifer: compassion and empathy, and Jennifer receives from John what she does not get from Bob: a man who talks about his thoughts, fears, and emotions.

Eno does a masterful job revealing the more intimate nature of each of these characters by forcing each character, and the audience, to peel back (or hack off) the crusty exteriors to find the soft underside. The fact that Eno uses a small town on the edge of a mountain as his setting, as well as night encounters with plenty of star gazing, points explicitly to the “higher” nature of this play’s consideration. Often the play has that aspect that one can only get when staring up at the stars: a wistful sense of one’s smallness, an expansive sense of history, a confrontation with one’s mortality, a sense of God or the infinite. The external setting often leads to shocking statements in the midst of banal small talk.

I’ve seen two plays by Eno at Dobama: Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), and Middletown-—Eno’s response to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. I’ve read others, including Tragedy: A Tragedy in New Downtown Now: An Anthology Of New Theater From Downtown New York. In each play Eno is obsessed with the tenuous nature of meaning inherent in our language and how we understand or misunderstand others and the world around us, and the things happening within us: thoughts, emotions, etc. All of this is rife in The Realistic Joneses. Virtually every statement by John, for instance, is undermined in the next statement, sometimes within the same sentence. An example, when the couples are parting ways at the end of scene one, might shed a bit of light, when John says: “This was fun. I mean, not fun, but definitely some other word.”

Some other word. That might be the best description of this play, or any of Eno’s plays. The quote might be, “I’m telling you something important, something vitally important; but not really important, maybe trivial, in fact. I’m not sure.” Thom Pain is one hour and ten minutes of savagery that is similar to this: a brutal search for meaning, for something real, that may or may not quite come to be. It’s as if Eno’s characters are frantically searching through a sand drift for something lost, but they can’t quite remember what it was, and maybe he or she finds something else.

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