CATCO Plumbs Magic in the Mundane with The Realistic Joneses
Playwright Will Eno has an ear for the beautiful strangeness in the way humans talk to one another and the fine line between good intentions and horrible acts. His gift for turning observation into emotion with a hot, sharpened knife is on full display in CATCO’s glorious production of The Realistic Joneses directed by Joe Bishara.
In an unnamed mountain town, Bob Jones (Ralph Edward Scott) is sick with Harriman Leavey Syndrome, a degenerative nerve disorder both incurable and hard to explain. His wife, Jennifer (Ella Palardi) has left work to help take care of her husband. Bob doesn’t want to know any details of the disease, just “show up,” which leaves Jennifer shouldering the lonely burden of both handling all logistics and maintenance and knowing to worry about the future in full.
Their long, quiet nights under the stars get interrupted when a younger couple rent the house next door: John (Bobby Loyd) and Pony Jones (Shenise Brown). John and Pony are exuberant and scattered but the same cracks are spreading through their marriage.
Disease winds through the play, mirroring, insinuating, sparking loneliness, like waves of radiation or a hot, dry wind coming off the mountains in the background of Edith Wadkins’ perfectly imagined set. These characters struggle for connection, knowing it on some animal level but never quite getting there. Palardi’s Jennifer wears that ache closer to the surface, but no one here is immune from that American loneliness.
We see these people unmoored from the connective tissue that most speech hangs on – sentences begin without preamble and end with “Now you talk” or a long stare into space. The cast and director excel at navigating the tricky rhythms of hyper-stylized speech, making it relatable without sanding down any of its strangeness. There are gut-busting laughs here by the bucket load. More obvious punch lines like Scott’s Bob saying, “My biggest fear? I have so many they need to be ranked?” or Loyd’s saying the disease “Sounds like a jazz combo. We were talking about Bob’s thing, the Benny Goodman experience,” hide subtler knife twists in the Kenneth Koch “one train may hide another” sense.
Shenise Brown has one of the hardest tasks in this or any play. One of the first things we learn about Pony is that she owns up to a lack of empathy. As Loyd’s John says, “People being moody and going blind isn’t her thing.” Forcing us to face that truth we all know instinctively we should be perfect and supportive at the darkest period for someone we love but many of us don’t live up to it could make Pony the villain but Brown’s subtle take on Pony’s boisterous, trapped feeling, is impossible to look away from and even impossible to not root for on some level.
Scott’s Bob is a case study in making the most out of what could be an unsympathetic character. Scott turns what, in lesser hands, is a sitcom bumbling head-in-the-sand Man of a Certain Age and into a fully fleshed out human. He makes Bob sparkle with his keen intelligence and comedic timing. Bobby Loyd’s sense of physical comedy makes everything in The Realistic Joneses cut deeper. His character has the most outwardly “odd” speech patterns, but he makes even the heaviest abstraction seem unforced without robbing it of any of its delicious, weird sting.
Palardi’s Jennifer is a revelation. Without going too broad, she makes the audience see the vibrant person she was – and the rich, full life she shared with Bob – before the disease ate through their lives. When she explodes with a rage she’s kept bottled for so long and growls, “I’m so tired of men making speeches and mistakes and being sick and being afraid,” it’s a shot of pure catharsis in something so coiled and internal. Her two scenes with Loyd, in a supermarket and at his kitchen table are as heartbreaking as anything I’ve seen.
There’s no play like The Realistic Joneses on a Columbus stage right now. One of the finest works of one of the greatest American writers given the treatment it deserves.
The Realistic Joneses runs through March 25 with shows at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org.