Addison — The Realistic Joneses at WaterTower Theatre, produced in the Discover Series in the Studio Theatre, opens with an unshaven James Crawford sitting opposite a wistful Diana Sheehan. These are the Joneses, Bob and Jennifer, sitting outside their home in encroaching, evening darkness. The dialogue juts at odd angles with portents of a long marriage and its accompanying baggage. As the audience eagerly fills their role as co-creators of this theatrical event by filling in the blanks, it seems like director David Denson is allowing playwright Will Eno to give us a familiar crusty curmudgeon and his long suffering spouse for our evening companions.
And then, the Joneses arrive.
John and Pony, that is. Justin Locklear and Martha Harms, respectively. Bounding out of the alley like puppies, they intrude on our otherwise taught dramedy with uncomfortable enthusiasm. The tension that was drawing our string tight enough to tune is suddenly slackened to jump rope sagginess. Only then, is it apparent that we’ve been looking at the instrument all wrong. It’s not what we thought it was. But what is it?
This isn’t theater for beginners, mind you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all start somewhere. This is for the audience that’s a little more advanced. It will get even better with repeated viewing, I’m sure. Though, the same could be said about Everest. This isn’t as dangerous.
Though the stakes are life and death. Anything about life is about death, right? Living is dying, right? It’s not like there’s a third choice. Right?
If that sort of logic knot tempts you to untangle, this show is for you. If it seems like inane chatter, this show is also for you, because both are true. Playwright Eno mixes things in ways that at times contradict and at others emphasize like two signatures overlaid resulting in a scribble except where the letters happen to be the same.
The younger Joneses break the reverie of the older Joneses, having rented the house down the street. Uninvited and ignoring conventions their lives suddenly intersect physically and dramatically. Their invasion is made complete when one and then the other use the bathrooms of their new neighbors. But as soon as the audience can recognize the scenario as trafficking in the current fad of the comedy of awkwardness, a character reappears and identifies it as awkward. Eno seems entirely self-aware and equally un-self-conscious.
Plot-wise the scenario facing the couples (degenerative illness) is similar, but their reactions differ. Except where they don’t. Young vs old; newly married vs not. The lines converge and cross, but what lifts the entirety is the dialogue. Characters often speak with groove-jumping logic. The intent behind the line is clear, a credit to the impeccable cast and precise director, but the connection to its moment before or after strains our brain. After a while, we have to give in to the larger picture of what the characters are really after. We have all had the experience of answering, “What’s up?” with “Fine. And you?” Our meager effort at the meeting results in a lack of meaning.
Or does it?
Might it not mean even more? Reveal more than we intended? The extent to which we don’t care about the other person is suddenly obvious and exposed. Eno goes to this device again and again challenging the audience to keep up and chastising us for getting too far ahead. Denson, all the while, holds his cast’s feet to the fire, keeping all the odd angles sharp and the audience honest.
Everything-designer Christopher Ham, for his part, triumphs over the ubiquitous momentum-killing blackout, by overlaying sound and video projections with swirling lights over the scene changes. His set design is a fluid set of rolling furniture and sliding screen door unit in front of a sunset drop with a silhouette horizon ground row. The characters can change the scenery because the things of their lives are interchangeable in relationship to the vastness of the sky. As if that weren’t enough, he also uses sound cues that subtly but pointedly exert their presence, such as crickets to remind you that we’re outside. In keeping with all the other design choices, however, they’re neither consistent nor predictable.
All of this would be to no avail were it not for the precise work of the cast. Crawford, the older Jones with a degenerative nerve disorder, creates a grump so complete that the shift in his mood at the end seems like a titanic achievement. Sheehan, his impossibly understanding and hopeful wife, lulls us with what seems like the most identifiable character, but gaining our sympathy doesn’t mean giving aware her ability to surprise. Her younger female counterpart, played by Harms, may be the most difficult character in the play. Harms makes her believable despite her character’s impenetrable childishness. She’s who every parent fears his or her kid will fail to grow up to be.
The most mercurial performance belongs to Locklear as John Jones, though it isn’t necessarily fair to single one out of the ensemble. His younger Jones uses positivity to parry every advance like a fencer armed only with air. The dodges add up, though, to as serious of an examination of life as the older, terminal Jones makes. The scene where the two are caught by the motion detector floodlight is genius. Light only comes from moving, but you can’t see the sky until you are still.
And on top of that, the sky isn’t big enough for sharing. Look over at your own part.
This production shouldn’t be required viewing, because not everyone is up to it. Besides, those who are will want to see it again and there simply won’t be enough seats to go around.