First of all, let's make one thing perfectly clear: The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, now at Dobama Theatre, is a damn funny play. Indeed, I can't remember when I've laughed out loud more often ... well, since the last time I saw a Will Eno play: Middletown, at Dobama, in 2012.
The laughs come fast and furious as Eno's masterful way with quirky takes continually surprises. But from the scenic design to the direction, this play both tries too hard and then not hard enough — never penetrating below the surface and delivering on the deeper meaning that pulses just below all the glinting words.
It all begins in the backyard of Bob and Jennifer Jones, a middle-aged couple shooting the breeze in that familiar way long-time couples have. Their suburban reverie is interrupted by the appearance of their new young neighbors, John Jones and his imaginatively named wife, Pony.
Immediately, Eno's dialogue carousel starts, spinning normal small talk into weirdly hilarious new forms. When Jennifer compliments Pony on her unusual name, she responds that her dad thought it up. Then Bob drily observes, "Well, it was already a word." From then on, you know that no conversational banality is safe from being turned into a punch line. It's like a gag-fest version of Tourette's Syndrome.
And that makes for some dandy rejoinders and head-snapping transitions. When John and Pony relate an amusing anecdote, John suddenly says to Bob and Jennifer, "That's it, that's the end of the story. Now you say something." In this way, playwright Eno strips the meat off normal conversation, leaving only the bare skeleton — and the rattling of those bones is often a hoot.
It turns out, however, that all is not sweetness and light in this little street tucked at the foot of a mountain range. Bob is suffering from a degenerative nerve disease which has the conflicting symptoms of being sluggish and seething. There's only one doc specializing in this disease, and this is the town where he practices.
Given all the direct statements of intent in Eno's work, there is also some misdirection. When Pony says they moved to the town because of the good schools, Jennifer asks if they have kids. "No," Pony answers, "it's just, John hates stupid children." John then explains that he was under a lot of pressure when he said that. But the reason for their move forges a bond between the two families that influences their actions.
Some of those actions include Jennifer becoming rather attracted to the bizarre locutions and oddly calming presence of John, whom she often finds staring at nothing much, at home and around the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Bob is drawn to Pony and her peculiar persona. But these aren't just the typical suburban hook-ups driven by lust; there are deeper, soulful feelings at work.
Unfortunately, director Shannon Sindelar maintains a consistently distant vibe that works well for the offbeat comedy but doesn't allow the actors to engage with each other as fully as they might. John (Chris Richards) is almost constantly staring off into the middle distance, and Pony (Rachel Zake) never shakes a rather depressive vibe that pulls her down. Bob (Joel Hammer) and Jennifer (Tracee Patterson) have wider emotional bandwidths, but it is still hard for them to extricate themselves from the mordant chuckle-factory where Sindelar has placed them.
By not encouraging more tonal variety from Richards and Zake, Sindelar shortchanges the larger issues of mortality and psychic struggles that this play deals with in the shadows of its crackling, vibrant wit. And that's unfortunate, since these players are more than capable of exploring a galaxy of nuances.
If the direction doesn't try hard enough, the scenic design by the talented Laura Carlson Tarantowski tries too hard. A simple sliding door unit serves as the portal for both Jones' houses. But it is placed on a green artificial grass carpet that literally has a painted, forked river cut through it. Then the river travels upstage to a backdrop of painted mountains with a gash in the middle. The rather obscure symbolism here is working way too hard.
Plus, by establishing seating areas at the far corners of Dobama's enormous stage, conversations between and among the characters are sometimes conducted over yards of empty space. If that is also a symbol of some sort, it is one that puts the actors in a weird position and gives a pain to the head-swiveling audience in the center section.
Want to be dazzled by some wonderful, richly amusing wordplay? Will Eno is your man and The Realistic Joneses is a treasure trove. But if you fancy characters with a few more complex levels than what's seen on the surface, this production may strike you as less than a sum of its laughs.