Keeping Up With The Realistic Joneses at 4th Wall Theatre Co.

Drake Simpson, Vaishnavi Sharma, Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl in The Realistic Joneses at 4th Wall Theatre Company.
Drake Simpson, Vaishnavi Sharma, Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl in The Realistic Joneses at 4th Wall Theatre Company. Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Let's just get this out of the way. If you have to be bombarded with thoughts of your own mortality and the mortality of the people you care most about, thoughts of strained relationships and dealing with the undealable things people have to deal with every single day, then it's an unexpectedly nice treat to get to do it with Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses, now playing at 4th Wall Theatre Company.

It’s a quiet night on the patio of Bob and Jennifer Jones, with only stilted conversation and the hoot of an owl to be heard. That is, until their new, surname-sharing neighbors, John and Pony Jones, arrive, knocking over trashcans and bearing a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag. The younger Joneses recently migrated to this unnamed “little town in the mountains” and settled a mere 200 feet “that way” from Bob and Jennifer. The couples proceed to take turns leaking and blurting personal information. Jennifer reveals that Bob is suffering from a possibly congenital degenerative nerve disease, the kind where a doctor prescribes a “good attitude” and a boatload of pills that may work. Pony tells of the time she thought her husband was leaving her. Though Bob puts an abrupt end to the conversation, the two couples continue to come in contact with each other, becoming more entwined and finding out they have even more in common than they originally think.

The Realistic Joneses is a play about relationships and communication under a very specific strain – death tailgating you down the freeway of life. In about a dozen distinct scenes, Eno’s recognizable voice is on full display: stylized (though not overly), deceptively familiar, precise in its humor, and unnaturally insightful. It’s a play about coping, and somehow going forward because, well, what choice do you have? The two couples in the play are engaged in a clunky, four-person dance – full of starts, stops, and self-caused tripping – but director Jennifer Dean finds its grace in the lyricism of Eno’s dialogue. She leads this group with precision and foresight to just what audiences would need to immerse themselves in the world of the four Joneses (seriously, the staging for this one is out-of-this-world good). And speaking of the four Joneses, Eno’s book is only half the story of this production, as the cast turns in layered, nuanced performances of some not entirely easy material.

In an early scene, John comments on Jennifer’s composure, and though she breaks at times, it is her character’s most defining characteristic. She is Bob’s caregiver, which means she’s basically required to be the Energizer Bunny for them both, despite the bone-deep fatigue she’s feeling, which is subtly worn like a second skin by Kim Tobin-Lehl. She plays Jennifer with an ever-present sigh, loneliness and frustration bubbling up but tamped down. That said, she’s still trying, which is quite the chore opposite Philip Lehl’s Bob.

Bob parries each of Jennifer’s attempts at connection with the skill of a fencing ninja. Bob is an ornery man (and the kind to say that feelings are there to be hurt), physically suffering but actively avoiding any knowledge of his situation. He instead lets Jennifer carry the weight of it for him. Lehl plays gruff well, but to see the switch get flipped, and see the twinkle in Lehl’s eye when Bob’s attention turns to Pony is quite the show in and of itself.

Where Bob uses words to resist, Drake Simpson’s John uses them as defense. John is the king of non-sequiturs and deflections, put-upon nonchalance skillfully enacted by Simpson. He is, as Jennifer describes him, “funny and weird,” with so much charm in his mix of seeming randomness and shoot-from-the-hip straight talk. Simpson also artfully wears “that look” throughout the production, making him, of all the characters, the most interesting.

Simpson has an easy, but weighty, rapport with Vaishnavi Sharma. Sharma’s Pony is a difficult character, to say the least. Pony cops to a lack of focus, as well at one point, of only being able to “handle half a person.” Sharma plays Pony’s tight grip on superficial cheer and her zig-zaggy stream of consciousness well, especially as it starts to crack.

Scenic and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon signifies each couple’s home with side-by-side, white-framed sliding doors. But each is quite distinct. The door to one leads out, the other in. The glass on one is dirtier, the other clean. One side empty with pieces getting added, and the other static in its normal clutter. It’s as practical as his lighting designs, and as practical as Yezminne Zepeda’s sound designs and Macy Lyne’s costumes. Zepeda is called on for an assortment of noise – the hooting owl, a siren wailing and getting closer, jazzy Muzak – and Lyne is relied on to elaborate just a bit more on the characters, which she does through things like Pony’s always-on leggings, John’s blue collar jeans, and Bob and Jennifer’s earthy color palette.

If this sounds like the design choices are solid, they are just that and only that. No creative decision seems to have been made that might risk stealing focus from Eno’s words and the actors bringing them to life. The right decision, by the way.

One other thing that can be said of The Realistic Joneses is that it isn’t too concerned with character or narrative arc, something made all the more visible at the end of the production when Dean and her team attempt to make up for the play’s non-ending through performance and creative decisions (i.e. nothing’s changed for Jennifer, but thanks to Tobin-Lehl and Lyne’s costume choice, you might be tricked into thinking something has). Still, there’s something apt about the ending. It’s just people trudging along, just as they did yesterday and just as they will tomorrow. Eno’s gifted us with a chance to visit with them, as has 4th Wall. And you know what they say about looking gift horses in the mouth.

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays and 2:30 p.m. January 18 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. Through February 8. For more information, call 832-786-1849 or visit $17 to $53.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.