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‘Realistic Joneses’ takes multilayered look at grim realities of life

Cortney McKenna (from left), Joseph Wiens, H.B. Ward and Linda Reiter in Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere of "The Realistic Joneses." | Evan Hanover

Cortney McKenna (from left), Joseph Wiens, H.B. Ward and Linda Reiter in Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere of "The Realistic Joneses." | Evan Hanover

On the surface, much of playwright Will Eno’s dialogue sounds like a series of oddly poetic non-sequiturs, voiced by people who consistently misread social cues. So it goes in “The Realistic Joneses,” polished to a sublime sheen by director Jeremy Wechsler in a co-production between Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit. Don’t let the surface fool you. There’s endless profundity (and marvelous wit) embedded in the 100-minute drama. The more you listen, the more obvious that becomes.

‘The Realistic Joneses’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through March 9
Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $24 – $74
Info: shatteredglobe.org

The plot is little more than a series of conversations between Jennifer and Bob Jones (Linda Reiter and H.B. Ward, respectively) and their new neighbors John and Pony Jones (Joseph Wiens and Cortney McKenna). Bob and Jennifer are in their late 40s, long-married and long-time residents of a small, mountain town where they can spend evenings stargazing from their patio. John and Pony are in their late 30s. They’ve moved to the mountains, in part because of John’s driving need to live near something “vast.”

The older Joneses initially (and understandably, in Eno’s meet-weird setup) mistake the younger Joneses for raccoons or possibly a skunk. Once their common humanity is established, the neighbors commence awkward attempts at neighborliness. They share space on the patio, but each character seems stranded on their own little linguistic island, sending up verbal flares that never hit the mark. “Seems” is the operative word. In Eno’s world, everyone is connected even when (especially when) they feel completely alone.

Linda Reiter and H.B. Ward star as Jennifer and Bob Jones in Shattered Globe Theatre's "The Realistic Joneses." | Evan Hanover

Linda Reiter and H.B. Ward star as Jennifer and Bob Jones in Shattered Globe Theatre’s “The Realistic Joneses.” | Evan Hanover

Eno’s characters aren’t just “throwing words at each other,” as Jennifer worries in the first scene. Their halting, weirdly off-kilter forays out of isolation make sense, even at their weirdest. Or at least, they make sense the way life itself makes sense.

Here’s John, having a moment:
“Did anyone else feel that? (Very brief pause) The world is about to end.”

A moment later:
“Nope. Wrong again.”

Weird, right? Except it’s not. To one degree or another, we’ve all been there, yes? The world is crashing down. Until it isn’t. Life goes on.

Here’s the John and Bob, inadvertently summing up a fundamental conundrum of the human experience:

BOB: Moving is a pain.
JOHN: It is. Well said. Staying still is no picnic, either.

Well said indeed. From The Clash (“Should I stay or should I go”) to “Hamlet” (To be or not to be”), the eternal human dilemma has rarely been summed up so succinctly.

Eno’s dialogue is kind of like looking at one of those magic picture illusions: One moment it’s just some nonsense design. Then next, a meticulously detailed landscape suddenly pops into view. To make that pop, you need top-tier talent. Shattered Globe has that. Wechsler and his cast clearly understand the world of the “Joneses” — its shape, its rhythms, its surfaces and its depths and its blind alleys.

In the opening moments, Reiter and Ward turn minimalist dialogue into richly detailed characters. Jennifer’s expression is a map of weariness and hope. She’s dealing with both the physical decline of her husband and, she fears, the decline of their emotional bond. Still, when Reiter looks toward the stars, we see that Jennifer still has the capacity for joy. Or at least, the capacity to hope that joy is still out there somewhere.

Bob, we learn, is seriously ill, which we hear about verbally from Jennifer. But Ward makes the severity of that illness clear before a word about his condition is uttered. A small shift in posture and a wordless grimace is all Ward needs to reveal both the physical pain and the emotional toll it’s taking.

McKenna’s Pony has a lot in common with Bob. She too, is damaged, and like Bob, she keeps moving even when she’s faltering. When Pony sums up her state of mind (“I’m a totally unreliable person who’s filled with terror”) you can hear both her brokenness and her resilience.

As John, Wiens has a cryptic air that’s at once very funny and extremely endearing. More than anyone on stage, John misreads social cues. Or maybe he does read them, and decides to disregard them entirely. If the others don’t understand what he’s responding to — be it the beauty of “grocery story Muzac” or the impulse to vanish out the bathroom window — it makes no difference to him.

Jack Magaw’s set design and John Kelly’s lighting design beautifully complement Eno’s story. Bob and Jennifer’s patio seems to float into oblivion when the scene shifts to Pony and John’s kitchen. A pre-sunrise talk under a motion-sensor floodlight is utterly discombobulating, the visual equivalent of that micro-moment right after the alarm goes off, right before you remember what your life is about.

Parsing Will Eno’s dialogue can be like trying to pin down a dream in the seconds before it flits from consciousness. Still, no matter what eludes you, Eno makes the sense and the universal significance shine through.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.