“People,” Jennifer Jones says, “paint their houses.”
But her husband Bob is resistant about painting theirs. Though he doesn’t say so — or not directly — we eventually understand. He is in the claws of a degenerative disease and to him, painting a house is futile. You just have to do it over. Nothing lasts, he knows that now.
Death and how people face it is a serious subject and playwright Will Eno takes it seriously. In his new play, The Realistic Joneses, now at the Lyceum, Bob (the wonderfully caustic Tracy Letts) and Jennifer Jones (Toni Collette, in a nuanced and honest performance) use fewer and fewer words to communicate with each other as Bob’s symptoms get worse. You see them struggling to hold on to a marriage that is shifting under them as his health conditions change.
But “taking it seriously” doesn’t mean the play is serious. Instead, it is delightfully funny and dazzling in its wordplay. There aren’t jokes, exactly, but instead different flavors of humor that arise from the characters. The dialogue is sometimes sarcastic, sometimes silly, sometimes witty and sometimes cruel. But at all times it sounds like it’s coming out of the mouths of actual people.
Partly this is due to four grounded and sensitive performances, from Letts and Collette, plus Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei as another couple (younger, happier — so far) named Jones. But much of it is due to Eno’s script, which nails the stray thoughts that break across our minds when we’re trying to handle a crisis.
This is important, because on the surface, not much happens in these 90 minutes. This is an existentialist play told in a series of short scenes that at times don’t seem like they have a lot to do with each other. But there is, however, a gentle arc, about four people coming to terms with their own mortality. Eno and his actors keep the play rooted enough in the specific lives of these four Joneses — instead of spinning off into space like some absurdist plays can do in the wrong hands — so that the audience always feels invested in these particular lives.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people. But Eno in this play disagrees. Instead, it’s actually other people who save us — their conversation and care is what keeps us tethered to the word’s mundane joys. It’s what takes the futility out of living and makes it sad and funny and beautiful. It’s what makes it worthwhile, perhaps, to paint the house.