Laguna Playhouse’s ‘Realistic Joneses’ is a Brilliant, Definitive Dramedy

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Faline England, Joe Spano, Conor Lovett and Sorcha Fox star in “The Realistic Joneses” at Laguna Playhouse

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

As far as basic dramatic ingredients go, you can’t get much more elemental (solo shows aside) than “The Realistic Joneses.”

Four characters. Two married couples with the same surname, Jones. And that’s about it.

But any time playwright Will Eno is involved, something so deceptively simple is guaranteed to deliver more than is readily apparent.

“Joneses” was commissioned by and premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and had its Broadway premiere in 2014, but this is its first appearance in Orange County.

This production originated with the Irish theater company Gare St. Lazare Ireland (known as GSLI), which first entered it in the 2022 Dublin Theatre Festival as a co-production with the Ventura-based Rubicon Theatre Company.

What’s being seen in Laguna and at Rubicon is essentially the Southern California touring version of the original production, with the same cast, director and designers (scenic, costumes, lighting and sound).

Anyone expecting a conventional theater experience is more than likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses” – at least until the play establishes its footing and gives viewers something onto which to hold.

Joe Spano, Sorcha Fox, Faline England and Conor Lovett star in “The Realistic Joneses” at Laguna Playhouse

Eno has written a series of brief scenes that play almost like blackouts – but as far as plot is concerned, there essentially is nothing in terms of a “story” that can be summarized in a sentence or two.

We first meet Bob Jones (Joe Spano) and his wife Jennifer (Sorcha Fox) as they sit in their backyard at night enjoying the serenity one rarely finds in populous urban areas.

We’re never told exactly where things take place – only that we’re in a sparsely populated rural area located near mountains. It’s a calculated effort to extend Eno’s themes and philosophical concerns beyond any specific geographical area (and successfully so).

Well known among Eno’s fans is his genius for the memorable turn of a phrase, and “Joneses” rewards audiences patient enough to let these wash over them. Early on, for example, Bob tosses off the comment that he has “so many fears, they have to be ranked.”

In short order, another couple wanders in, introducing themselves. They’re the new neighbors who just moved in next door, and by coincidence, their surname is also Jones – John (Conor Lovett) and Pony (Faline England).

When you see this remarkable staging (and you’ll want to once you’ve read this), you’ll notice it’s got an other-worldliness akin to that of Beckett. It’s therefore no coincidence that GSLI has championed the great Irish playwright, having since 1998 built a repertory of more than 23 Beckett productions.

Faline England, Sorcha Fox, Joe Spano and Conor Lovett star in “The Realistic Joneses” at Laguna Playhouse

That Beckett-like sensibility meshes well with Eno’s trademark quirkiness, a style of humor that passes up the standard lead-in, punchline of most comedy writers in favor of something incredibly subtle.

It’s also more lifelike: We all know that in reality, people don’t speak in the kind of line-line-punchline rhythms seen in most plays (not to mention TV sitcoms).

That makes “Joneses” a challenge for its cast, director Judy Hegarty-Lovett, and certainly for Laguna’s audiences, some of whom might not know what to make of something unlike most other plays you’ve ever seen.

“The Realistic Joneses” is the definitive dramedy, perching us on the edges of our seats and holding our breaths as we absorb the interaction of four characters who, again, seem and feel like they emerged from Samuel Beckett’s imagination.

That often-melancholy feeling includes all four characters’ stutter-step way of communicating. Seeing the show, you’ll quickly learn that the essentially taciturn Bob is battling a congenital degenerative nerve disease not unlike ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and that has forced Jennifer into the role of caregiver.

While much of John and Pony’s dialogue at first seems to focus on everyday trivia, it’s clear to us early on that each member of this marriage is moving along divergent tracks.

Each, also, finds themselves gravitating toward their opposite-gender counterparts: John is attracted to Jennifer, and maybe it’s because Pony doesn’t offer the depth he craves. Pony wants to be around Bob, perhaps because lately, John has begun spouting verbiage best described as incoherent.

Faline England and Joe Spano star in “The Realistic Joneses” at Laguna Playhouse

Your patience with this first-rate production of “The Realistic Joneses” will be rewarded at the moment when we learn precisely what brought John and Pony to such an isolated locale, one of life’s crushing realities that puts so much of “Joneses” in perspective.

Spoilers aside, let’s just say the revelation shows us that John and Bob have a lot more in common than we might at first realize.

Kudos to the monumental work of actors England, Fox, Lovett and Spano; to Eno’s gutsy translation of inchoate fears into words and ideas; and to Hegarty-Lovett for pulling it all together.

Special kudos, though, to GSLI producer Maura O’Keefe and Rubicon producing artistic director Karyl Lynn Burns for producing this show, and to Laguna Playhouse’s interim artistic director, David Ellenstein, for giving local theater audiences access to such a brilliant work with such far-flung roots.

While “disease” might be the concrete subject to which “Joneses” is pegged, the play proves to be the kind of dark comedy whose territory is scarcely ever explored by contemporary playwrights of any stripe.

In that regard, Eno can be called fearless, and “The Realistic Joneses” can rightfully be termed a comedy of unease.

It will make you feel uneasy. It might make you squirm. You’ll laugh where you’re meant to, but even then, you’ll be thinking about life and death, human existence and mortality.

About halfway through the play, John states that “everything is mortal.” That line will pierce your heart and soul, sparking the kind of realizations most contemporary plays don’t wish us to encounter.

And maybe that’s a good thing. This evening of theater is an often-bleak rumination on the meanings of humanity, life and mortality – one that delivers laughs, but also the kind of sobering realizations most of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through May 14. Running time: About two hours (no intermission). Tickets: $30 to $79.50. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.

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