New York, Saturday, 19 April.
Will Eno is back in New York. I wonder why I do this to myself … that is, buy a ticket to his new play knowing full well that I will have no idea what’s going on. New York productions of Eno’s work have been relatively scarce, although his The Open House was produced downtown last month by Signature. He often finds success in London productions, where tastes are perhaps more eclectic. But his sphere of appreciation is rapidly widening.
The last Eno “play” I saw was a good regional production of Thom Pain (based on nothing). Barely what should be called a “play,” it nonetheless earned near-universal raves and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2005. So what do I know? It is essentially a one-man, one-act monologue, seemingly about whatever popped into the title character’s wandering, long-suffering mind: Sex, naturally … as well as playing cowboy, a traumatic bee sting, and a pet dog that died. It was an hour of existentialist angst, dark humor and very witty truth-telling that strips away all pretentions, comes to no conclusions, and seems to negate the whole idea of meaning. No … it had nothing whatsoever to do with the American revolutionary, Tom Paine … which is the title of a perfectly good 60’s radical-leftist play about exactly what it says it’s about.
So now we have The Realistic Joneses, boasting high-powered credentials: Veteran Broadway director Sam Gold, and an all-star cast of Tony Collette, Michael C. Hall (late of Dexter), Tracy Letts (who wrote August: Osage County), and Marisa Tomei. It clearly has its roots in the old Thom Pain themes, but this time there are four characters to bandy the words about. Like Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, about which I posted last October, this is a two-couple backyard play. But unlike that earlier play, there is no conflagration here. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Both couples are named Jones, America’s blandest and most “normal” surname (with apologies to all my Jones friends). Their flatly delivered conversations come in mixed configurations, in apparently random short skit-like doses, separated by blackouts. And with four speakers, there is opportunity for just enough interplay to provide a modicum of dramatic possibilities for situation and conflict … Nothing like a real plot, though: Heaven forbid!
All that is very intentional, of course, and the play’s “message,” (there really isn’t one, exactly) might serve as a depressing reminder of how we have all lost our way … maybe! That assumes, of course, there was ever a way to be lost, which is not at all clear. And if there is a point to it all, which by definition cannot be admitted to in the existentialist mind, that’s it. There is just no point in being depressed over losing our way if there was never any way to be lost. Still, for whatever it’s worth, while we await the end of the world, we find ourselves depressingly lacking in any motivational drive, in any traditional sense of purpose. At one point, we hear a mysterious low rumble that freezes the conversation: “Are we about to experience the end of the world?” (Pregnant pause; the rumble stops). “No, guess not.” [Don’t hold me to that; I’m paraphrasing.]
There are obvious shades of Becket in Eno’s writing, but everyone here seems to have long since given up on Godot’s arrival. We already know he’s not coming. Like Lett’s character, we merely hang out in the background; we wait, and we watch: “I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us. … But hey, what’re ya gonna do?”
What is both disturbing and refreshing about this kind of bewilderment is how truly funny it is. The punch lines were never pushed, but the laughter in the theatre was genuine, frequent, loud and abundant. It felt like every shallow, conversation-making platitude in the English language was to receive its comeuppance. The mood was “Why fight it? Might as well face up to our ordinariness, accept our completely finite meaninglessness, and have some good laughs until it’s over.
In fact, most of the time I’m not at all sure any of us knew what we were laughing at. It’s like if we had known, we would have been horrified … which I believe would be just fine with Mr. Eno. The loudest laugh was earned in response to Marisa Tomei’s “Does anybody know what this is all about, even?” Presumably the script was referring to life itself … wasn’t it? But Eno was also playing with the effect his play would be having on its very clueless audience, and we knew it.
A brief ninety minutes of skits and blackouts? Sounds like Saturday Night Live. But the material asks so much more from its audience than to be entertained.. Introspection, the absence of meaning, and the end of the world do not sell deodorant. Still, it must be an interesting writing process: being able to say what you want whenever you want to say it; cutting through all the b.s.; paying little if any attention to plot and structure. … I take that back. It can’t be that easy. Can it?
NEXT UP: Le Misanthrope (would you believe?)