Will Eno is one of the most highly regarded American playwrights to come along in the past dozen years or so. As has been frequently remarked, his plays seem part avant-garde and part sitcom (“a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” according to Charles Isherwood).
Vortex Theatre continues with its interesting, eclectic and adventurous production choices, with “The Realistic Joneses,” the one Eno play to be performed on Broadway.
As the title implies, Eno’s 2012 drama is more “realistic” than most of his other plays. It revolves around two couples, both named Jones, who meet in a small town near the mountains. As it turns out, both couples moved there to be near a doctor notable for treating a rare degenerative neurological disease that afflicts both male characters.
The most salient quality of this talented playwright is his unusual dialogue, which explores the strangeness of language and verbal interaction. This is both hyperrealism and theater of the absurd. The latter genre is characterized by the frequent use of non sequitur. Yet if non sequitur is an illogical response, Eno’s characters also respond hyperlogically. For instance, in the first scene when the two couples meet, Pony says her dad thought up her name, and Bob responds, “Well, it was already a word.” The play is diffused with similar responses throughout.
“The Realistic Joneses” is directed by Micah Linford and acted by Shangreaux Lagrave and Debi Kierst as the elder couple, Bob and Jennifer; and Ryan Jason Cook and Aleah Montano as the younger couple, John and Pony. As played by Lagrave, Bob is alienated from his own feelings. Kierst brings a palpable sense of frustration to his usually patient wife Jennifer.
Montano captures Pony’s determined obliviousness nicely. This is a woman totally unprepared for the harsher realities of life, and that is why her husband does not tell her of his disease (she panics when she sees a dead squirrel). John seems charming and spontaneous at first, but soon his aggressive panic and mental deterioration become obvious.
The set consists of three playing spaces, with the audience on three sides: the backyard of Bob and Jennifer, the kitchen of John and Pony (which bleeds into their yard), and a grocery store. Cook, who does a nice job with the very difficult part of John, does double duty as set designer. The realistic detail of the set design is perhaps best conveyed by remarking that the wall above the stove is stained black with smoke from years of cooking.
Josh Brown’s excellent sound design is replete with crickets, the hooting of an owl, and other perceived wonders that remind us we are enveloped by a vast and mysterious cosmos. It also includes a bizarre aural rendering of one of John’s more intense attacks.
Eno is an ambitious playwright preoccupied with language and how we use it to deflect pain and put up barriers to protect ourselves. Like the Smiths in Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” a play equally concerned with language, the Joneses stand for the vulnerable, terrified, mystified and ultimately mortal human condition. Eno is a playwright to keep your eye on, and this is a fine production of his most accessible play.
“The Realistic Joneses” plays through Oct. 15 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.