Communication breakdown

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 22, 2016
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Allison Jean White and James Wagner, as neighborhood<br>newcomers, share tales with Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp as a married couple<br>who share more than a last name with their unexpected guests in ACT's <i>The Realistic Joneses.</i> Photo: Kevin<br>Berne
Allison Jean White and James Wagner, as neighborhood
newcomers, share tales with Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp as a married couple
who share more than a last name with their unexpected guests in ACT's The Realistic Joneses. Photo: Kevin
Berne

As technological obsolescence accelerates, there are more and more closets where boxfuls of tangled cables are stashed away. They once connected something to another thing, and someday they may connect something else to another something else. But probably not. That's what it can feel like in the quirkily amusing, vaguely disturbing The Realistic Joneses, as communication has become a box of words looking vainly for compatible fits. Will Eno's recent Broadway play is well-served by the strong production now at the Geary Theater.

"It seems like we don't talk," says a middle-aged wife to her husband, who testily points out that this very conversation sufficiently proves that they do talk. "No," she forlornly replies. "We're sort of throwing words at each other." And so their vacant volleying would continue but for the unexpected arrival of a younger couple, new neighbors who come bearing a gift bottle, they proudly note, of European wine. Actually, adds the husband, its provenance is "just outside of Europe," which is a clarification that does the opposite.

Both couples share the surname, and both have landed in this same small town for a shared reason. Both Bob and John Jones suffer from the same rare degenerative neurological disorder that leaves them adrift as they await the next shoe to drop. The older Bob uses aggressive crankiness to deal with the fictional Harriman-Leavey Syndrome, while the more blithely aimless John just calls it the Benny Goodman Experience.

Eno doesn't dwell on medical ramifications, instead rolling out a series of short scenes featuring various permutations of the four Joneses in often-misaligned conversations. "You have a lot of composure," John tells Jennifer at one point. "Thank you," she replies. "Oh, you took that as a compliment " okay." The seemingly predictable patter spurs double takes as disconnects arise from dialogue that our minds have already begun sketching out that then swerves into unexpected directions.

There is considerable humor in these tilted conversations, but eventually the surprise wears off as their patterns become predictable. Things do happen over the course of the 100-minute play, among the more dramatic the discovery of a dead squirrel in the shrubbery that provokes a variety of reactions. There is also the hint of an extramarital encounter, but nothing much comes of that. In the end, no answers are found, no mysteries unraveled, no problems solved. But still it's an enjoyable journey even if the traveling distance of the narrative can be measured in inches rather than miles.

In ACT's production, finely tuned by director Loretta Greco, there is a quartet of excellent performances. Rod Gnapp is utterly convincing as Bob, the grouchy of the two Mr. Joneses, who uses a flattened delivery as a defense mechanism. His Mrs. Jones, Jennifer, is the main recipient of his behavior born of fear and frustration, and Rebecca Watson gives the character nuances as she slides through anger, frustration, concern, and a touch of desperate lust.

Despite their own issues, Bob and Jennifer recognize that the newly arrived John and Pony Jones are an off-kilter pair with a dubious back-story. James Wagner plays John with an almost aggressive whimsy, engaging for us and annoying for Bob Jones. John's wife, Pony, is a spacey ingenue whom Allison Jean White plays with convincingly happy-sad polarities. In a moment of discontent, she says, "I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something."

In the end, the Joneses couples do find common cause in lawn chairs beneath a canopy of stars. Gazing toward the unknown, they realize that its imperturbable muteness is slightly more bearable when you have company.

 

The Realistic Joneses will run through April 3 at the Geary Theater. Tickets are $25-$105. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.