You wouldn’t be the first to wonder what the hell The Realistic Joneses really means to be about.
To make some advance sense of that, before seeing the show—and you should—basically all you need to know about the play is that, in it, a younger couple named Jones has moved in next door to a middle-aged couple named Jones. The latter couple are having their problems: Bob (Tracy Letts) has an illness which is wreaking small but progressive havoc on his mental stability; and his wife Jennifer (Toni Collette) is digging deeper for the reserves of patience it takes to preserve stability at home. The younger couple are a little eccentric: Pony (Marissa Tomei) is ditzy, John (Michael C. Hall) is abstracted, with a penchant for non-sequitur philosophy. And that’s it.
Nothing much happens in the play save for a series of mix-and-match encounters, leading to no real consequence save a certain growing comfort zone between the two couples.
Why does it work so well anyway? Four reasons, I think.
(1) Playwright Will Eno has himself stated that for him an important component of the theatrical experience is providing enough ambiguity for the audience to bring their own perspective and interpretation to the party; even he (he claims) doesn’t have all the answers, and those spaces are as much for him as the viewer.
(2) He has a clear imprimatur. While one might say he’s in the tradition of Pinter and that ik, he is at the same time nothing like Pinter and that ilk: We know who the characters are to each other (none of that Is he really her husband? stuff), they don’t say things later that invalidate things they said earlier; they progress honestly, they're fully dimensional, he allows us to warm to and care about theem, and doesn’t conflate narrative ambiguity with emotional distance.
(3) He writes funny. The Realistic Joneses, somehow, in its bizarre, understated, ambiguous way, is terribly funny.
(4) It has that cast, directed by Sam Gold, and they’re perfectly keyed into the tone. They’re all on exactly the same wavelength and just have the mojo.
Sometimes, when the what is elusive, a few good answers to why fill in. Plus: right people, right room, right material equals lightning. It can be as simple as that.