Form is content. It was critic Martin Esslin who noted that the plays of Camus and Sartre supposedly asserting the pointlessness of life were in fact full of reasonable people arguing sensibly on the subject, and therefore promoting the old rationality even while aspiring to critique it. So it took an Ionesco — writing illogical, sense-defying drama — to create a real Theater of the Absurd, one not contradicted by its own medium. When Jack of Jack, or the Submission, refuses to marry a woman with two noses because he prefers one with three, we’re on the way to a new world. And when a long-awaited orator finally takes the stage at the end of The Chairs and can only make “an inarticulate, gurgling sound,” the Absurd has fully arrived. New contents need new forms.
And it’s a gently comic new content that Will Eno brings us in his wonderfully odd The Realistic Joneses, now onstage at Tampa Rep in a fine production. What happens in this weirdly resonant play isn’t nearly as important as Eno’s dialogue, a cockeyed, off-balance series of exchanges featuring innumerable non sequiturs, dead ends, contradictions. “You just don’t have to yell at me,” says Jennifer; “I didn’t yell,” retorts her husband. “I wish you would yell, sometimes,” says Jennifer. “Do you want me to yell or not yell?” asks her confused husband. “Those are my choices?” says insulted Jennifer, and we’re off to the races. “Do you know what a clystophoma is,” asks John. “No,” says concerned Bob, “What is it?” “Nothing. It’s a totally made-up word,” says John. “I wish I was wearing a sweater,” says Pony. “Can I grab you a sweatshirt?” says Bob. “I’m not cold, I just wish I was wearing a sweater,” says Pony. And on and on...
The plot, such as it is: Jennifer and Bob Jones are a married couple struggling with John’s degenerative disease, “Harriman Leavy Syndrome.” Into their lives come the new kids on the block, John and Pony Jones, also wrestling, it turns out, with a major medical challenge. (Eno’s point, apparently, is that we’re all suffering from a degenerative ailment called mortality.) The two couples talk and talk some more, visit each other, watch some fireworks, play sexual games, and then the play is suddenly over. There’s been little suspense or forward movement: instead we’ve been gifted with Eno’s worldview, his comically melancholy observations of the human condition as suggested by that kooky dialogue. And among other things, that worldview declares: If someone hurt your feelings, well, maybe that’s what feelings are for; you’d better live in an area that offers good schools if you want to avoid stupid children; still waters not only run deep, they also breed mosquitoes and malaria; and a marriage that solves four or five problems a year is probably a good marriage. If none of this sounds terribly profound, well, it’s not meant to be; what’s being communicated is a wounded, wacky sensibility, one that’s far enough from normal to feel refreshing and provocative. Like an exotic food you didn’t know you were hungering for, Eno’s theater leaves the usual fare – strict realism – feeling insipid.
The Tampa Rep troupe is superb. As Bob Jones, Randy Rosenthal mopes with self-serving constancy, and as his wife Jennifer, Joanna Sycz is forceful and sharp-witted. Jason Wagner plays John Jones as a man so naturally stoned, he might at any moment pass out from the effects of fresh air or the English language, and Nicole Smith as spouse Pony is a smiling tempest of paradoxical emotions. Director C. David Frankel finds the comedy in every misunderstanding, and set designer Bridgette Dreher neatly places the action on a nearly bare stage, with a table and chairs at one extremity to represent one house, and a chair and refrigerator on the other side, to represent its neighbor. The uncredited costuming is persuasively casual.
Why are both couples named Jones? My guess is that Eno would say, we’re all Joneses, we’re all eccentric, peculiar, doing our best to be cheerful in a deluge, reaching out clumsily for love as the sand we’re camping out on is increasingly washed away beneath our feet. Of course, you don’t have to share this glum worldview to find the play worthwhile; you can just enjoy its comedy, and its assertion of a world far from the falsely “objective” one that seems to underpin realist drama. In short, I recommend The Realistic Joneses. It’ll mess with your expectations and take you out of your comfort zone. It’ll bring you somewhere new; and have you laughing most of the way.
The Realistic Joneses
Three-and-a-half of five stars
HCC Ybor Performing Arts Building, Palm Ave. and 14th St., Tampa.
Through Nov. 20: Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.