When it comes to orgies, swap meets and many of life’s other adventures, what one brings to the experience often determines what one gets out of it. That’s certainly the case with most live theater. A confirmed curmudgeon is far less apt to weep at Romeo and Juliet than someone whose lover died in their arms a month earlier. A teen might scoff at the archness of Chicago only to be transported by the show a decade later.
Make no mistake, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest, The Realistic Joneses, is exactly that kind of play. It’s fear and loathing in suburbia, an existential tone poem comprised of linear vignettes that take on the semblance of a story in the decided absence of an actual plot. Emotionally, it’s a lazy river of despair and desperation. Intellectually, it mines biting humor from the mundane.
In the backyard of a jagged house, surrounded by a jagged fence, in the early part of a jagged evening (thank you set designer Ron Mueller and lighting designer Sean Mallary), middle-aged Bob and Jennifer Jones (Michael Morgan and Emily Paton Davies) sit uneasily around their fire pit. Something isn’t right between them. Jennifer seems to want to talk about it while Bob numbly dodges her efforts to engage. The Jones’s awkward semi-silence becomes somewhat less silent, if no less awkward, with the unheralded arrival of the Joneses. Other Joneses. No relation. The new Joneses, John and Pony Jones (Casey Andree and Kate Parkin), are a younger couple who have just moved in a few doors down. They come bearing wine and a hipster vibe.
On the surface, the two couples interact in various combinations. These episodes feature little activity, instead preferring to assemble themselves into a sort of ongoing, spiral conversation occurring in succeeding locations. Jennifer and John talk in a supermarket parking lot. Bob and John verbally joust standing outside under the stars. Bob and Pony kibbutz in John and Pony’s kitchen.
All four characters are poster children for neurosis, some perhaps with more reason than others. Neither couple seems particularly happy, which informs the will-they-won’t-they swinger/adultery undercurrent that, thankfully, culminates in the single most interesting development, even if that turn of events, as well as its aftermath, strains credulity and goes unexplained and unexplored.
Underneath, The Realistic Joneses is ripe for interpretation. Did playwright Will Eno name both couples Jones simply as a play on the old “keeping up with the Joneses” saw? Is there more to it? Is the shared name a signpost pointing to the younger Joneses and the older Joneses being metaphorically the same couple at different times in their lives? That seems fairly apparent, but what if, despite their differing first names, the two couples are actually the same couple with the younger version existing as a history lesson to and about the older one?
All four actors commit commendably to their roles. Davies’ Jennifer is a loving but frustrated wife and a woman wrestling with eternal concerns. Morgan’s Bob shies away from life, until he doesn’t, and he’s as funny as he is flawed. Parkin really sinks her teeth into a rather lightly written Pony, shining particularly during Pony’s more unhinged scenes. Andree rides John like a wave, paddling out snarky and assured before shooting a curl of fragility and fear.
For the record, though, Mr. Morgan, you need to update your headshot. I know it ain’t cheap, but when I don’t recognize you from your program pic and only realize that I’ve watched you act in multiple other plays when I see you on stage, it’s time, my friend.
If you’re a Sartre fan, a reformed Goth, or otherwise hanker for some what’s-the-point-of-it-all ennui, The Realistic Joneses may just be your cup of early 21st century, suburban, middle-class hemlock.
ON THE BILL: ‘The Realistic Joneses’ — presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, betc.org. $22.50 and up.