The less-than-compelling Joneses

The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno, directed by Richard Rose, running at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace to Dec. 18.

The audience I saw The Realistic Joneses with on opening night seemed to like the play: A stream of non-sequiturs during the first act turned many viewers into laugh factories, and more than a few exchanges afterward received appreciative chuckles as well. At the end there were loud, enthusiastic cheers, and murmuring among several of my fellow theatregoers that implied they had just seen part of their lives onstage.

They were, in short, entertained.

I was bored.

I don’t think I can blame my boredom on anyone involved with this endeavour, except for writer Will Eno, whose script was first performed on Broadway two years ago. The set is a suitably realistic-looking middle American front porch and kitchen, built on a rotating platform — exactly the sort of place you’d expect two middle-aged couples in Anytown, U.S.A., to spend their retirement years.

Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose’s staging is as tightly calibrated as ever, and the actors who play the title couples — Tom Barnett, Soulpepper’s Susan Coyne, the Shaw Festival’s Patrick McManus, and Jenny Young — all seem well cast.

But I can’t tell you if their performances are good or not, because their characters feel underwritten and all of them — even Coyne, one of my favourite actresses onstage or off — play them with only one note. Bob (Barnett) and John (McManus) are both succumbing to the same hereditary, Alzheimer’s-like disease, and the former deals with it by retreating inward, while the latter deals with it by being as awkward as possible. Their wives are exasperated and in denial about it, respectively.

Here’s Bob and his wife, Jennifer (Coyne), at the beginning of the show:

JENNIFER: It just seems like we don’t talk.

BOB: What are we doing now? Math?

JENNIFER: No, we’re — I don’t know — sort of throwing words at each other.

That sort of cutting, deflecting remark, which elicited laughs from the audience, is how Bob responds to most questions at the beginning, and it’s how he responds to most questions at the end.

Or here’s a typical example from John, when he runs into Jennifer at the grocery store:

JOHN: Well, hey, if it isn’t you.

JENNIFER: No, it is. Hi.

JOHN: I’m just saying, you know, what if it wasn’t?

Yes, it’s funny. It’s also funny when John overanalyzes the conversation when he and his wife, Pony (Young), first meet the neighbours they’ve moved next to, and it’s still funny when he’s overanalyzing himself, his wife, and their neighbours at the end.

But it isn’t interesting. There’s no arc to John, or Bob, or Jennifer, or Pony. Nothing of consequence happens in The Realistic Joneses.

John initially hides his condition, which is predictably revealed at the worst possible time, and two of the spouses cheat on each other, but it doesn’t amount to much. One aggrieved spouse is angry when they first discover the betrayal, then is over it in the next scene. I don’t recall the other having a reaction at all.

Granted, people often fail to change or learn anything from challenges in real life, and perhaps Eno hoped I would glean something profound from watching these couples ignore a valuable lesson. But I’ve seen or read plenty of stories about two middle-aged, upper-middle-class, small-town American couples — including ones where the protagonist doesn’t learn an illustrated lesson — and saw no compelling reason to hear this one.

And yet…

The audience I saw The Realistic Joneses with (most of whom appeared older than me, and married) undeniably enjoyed it. So did other Toronto theatre critics. Researching the New York City-born Eno, I learn his favourite playwright is Samuel Beckett and perhaps that is why others have said he’s intentionally highlighting the awkward, the boring, the oddly taken for granted elements of daily life in this play.

I personally can’t recommend The Realistic Joneses, but it sounds like there’s an audience for it — and it wouldn’t be the first time Tarragon staged a solid show for someone other than me.