Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The first pair of Joneses we meet are long married Bob and Jennifer in the backyard of their nondescript suburban home. From the first exchanges between them, we know that something is amiss in their lives. Jennifer wants to talk, while Bob scorns any serious exchange and wants just to enjoy the beautiful evening. When he points out that they are in fact talking now, Jennifer responds, "Are we talking or just throwing words at each other?" It is clear which one is the engager and which one is the avoider.
Soon the second pair of Joneses, John and Pony, crash through the bushes between their adjoining yards, bearing a bottle of wine as an offering of neighborly good will. They have just rented the house next door because Pony has always wanted "to live in one of those little towns near the mountains." Pony lacks any focus, ricocheting from one idea or interest to another like a pinball, and often fails to think before she speaks. John is intent on being charming but comes across as cynical. He answers all questions with jokes, and instantly changes his opinions to match someone else'san acknowledgement that he has no convictions of his own other than to be agreeable, as if playing the role of a game show host on the game that is his life.
In the course of several scenes this quartet of Joneses interact in various combinations. I would say they get to know one another better, but that is not probably true, as they each find it difficult to face themselves, let alone reveal that self to others. There is flirtationand perhaps morebetween John and Jennifer, and Pony and Bob; the two guys make an awkward stab at male bonding. John ensnares Jennifer in keeping secrets from Pony that may or may not be true. All of them have privateand some publicdiscontents. Their conversations are flippant, even when the speaker is not meaning to be, as when Jennifer is recommending the physician treating the rare degenerative disease from which Bob suffers by saying "He's a specialist, but he's very good."
It is interesting to note that the well-received 2014 Broadway staging of The Realistic Joneses was cast with four famous actors (after all, it was Broadway) who are close in age: Toni Colette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei. The age gap between the oldest and youngest of those four is less than ten years. This casting may have made the two couples seem more like peers. In the Park Square production, Jennifer and Bob are cast with an older pair of actors, Angela Timberman and J.C. Cutler, both doing estimable work as a couple well into middle-age who have grown accustomed to the ways in which they drive one another crazy. Their lived experience, for bother better and worse, gives them an edge over Jennifer and John, who are visibly much younger, as played by Eric "Pogi" Sumangil and Jane Froiland. The younger pair are not nearly so sure of themselves or of each other, and repeatedly give the impression of trying on slices of life for size. The difference in age is also visible enough make the prospect of a physical relationship between the older and younger Joneses feel more like a grasp at some kind of validation other than lustful desire.
That said, all four actors are terrific, and they capture the spirit, needs, fears, and illusions of their characters. Angela Timberman is unsurpassed at being a put-upon partner, trying her best to be selfless in her sacrifice. J.C. Cutler does a great rendition of a man with a condition that ages and pushes him to crabbiness, who can only find solace in retreat from his life. Jane Froiland brings unfiltered energy to Pony, unable to maintain a thought, let alone an interest, yet who is truly seeking something to ground her. As John, Eric "Pogi" Sumangil portrays a guy who avoids facing his life at all costs, papering over it with jokes, diversions and deceptions. Sumangil does a great job of projecting vacuous charm that fools no one, not even himself.
Joel Sass's swift and fluid direction greatly aids this production, drawing out four strong performances that maintain balance among the characters and the centrality of each of them to the course of the play. Transitions between scenes are swiftly addressed with furniture and props carted on and off stage by the cast members to create spaces on the exterior and interior sides of standard-issue sliding patio doors, on a set designed by director Sass. Costume designer Cole Bylander, lighting designer Michael P. Kittel, and sound designer C. Andrew Mayer all contribute to a production that forms a cohesive whole. Barely audible sound of crickets chirping at night are a reminder of the natural forces that persist as human beings wrestle with anxieties of their own invention.
Bob, Jennifer, John and Pony may not be the best company, but in the course of the ninety minutes we spend with them we are consistently entertained by their one-liners, witty non-sequiturs, and unlikely situations. There is talk of change by all parties, but not much happens. In the end, that is probably the most realistic thing about these Joneses.
The Realistic Joneses continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through October 16, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Will Eno; Director and Scenic Designer: Joel Sass; Costume Designer: Cole Bylander; Lighting Designer: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Laura Topham
Cast: J.C. Cutler (Bob), Jane Froiland (Pony), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (John), Angela Timberman (Jennifer).