Station Realistic Jones1

From left, Jeremiah Lowry as John Jones, Lindsey Gates-Markel as Pony Jones, Gary Ambler as Bob Jones and Barbara Evans as Jennifer Jones rehearse a scene from 'The Realistic Joneses' on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, at the Station Theatre in Urbana.

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The theatergoer settles into a seat and immediately plunges into the playbill. Who is in this production? What else have they done at this theater? What does the director have to say about the play?

Then the eyes land on a surprise: The production will have a 10-minute intermission.

Really?

When Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses” ran on Broadway in 2014, it was a cool one hour and 35 minutes with no break. (That production was in a theater where concessions can provide an important revenue stream and breaks are encouraged.) Even Station Theatre’s website says the quirky human comedy runs only an hour and 40 minutes.

Eno’s impressionistic play centers on suburban life in a small town near some mountains. Two couples of middle age discover that they are neighbors who share the same last name. The younger couple arrives unannounced, except for the clatter of garbage cans, at the home of the elder Joneses carrying a gift of wine, which no one drinks.

The quartet engages in the banality of get-acquainted small talk that many of us find a torturous ritual. In the skilled hands of playwright Eno, who was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” platitudes artfully juxtaposed slice the air with mordant wit.

The numbing details of daily life are turned into stories, but those tales also end on notes of no substance, little point and less humor. For the audience, however, the struggle these couples engage to communicate leads to the mature laughter of recognition.

As the opening scene unfolds Jennifer (Barbara Evans) confides in Pony (Lindsey Gates-Markel) about the challenges she faces dealing with her husband’s degenerative illness. The fictitious Harriman Leavey Syndrome causes Bob (Gary Ambler) to suffer afflictions such as temporary blindness and memory loss.

Pony knowingly tells Jennifer, “Say no more.” “Have you had experience with something like this?” asks Jennifer. Pony replies, “I just didn’t want you to say any more.” This is playwright Eno flipping turns of phrase to their precise meaning, reminding the audience of the ways we avoid real communication with insincere veneers of interest that mask our true intent.

The lengthy opening scene establishes the characters and teaches us to listen carefully to the non-sequiturs and clichés that spill from their mouths. The following 11 scenes, however, are snapshots (almost literally, in some cases) that show the development of the couples’ relationships. To some extent, the playwright encourages us to write details of the story in our own minds.

Before long we realize that all is not well with the younger Joneses and that John (Jeremiah Lowry) is facing a health crisis of his own. His wife, Pony, however, does not have the personal strength that Jennifer brings to her relationship with Bob, whose name, she says, “dyslexics find comforting.”

Director Deb Richardson has a talented ensemble of veteran actors who were still finding the rhythms of Eno’s clever (and odd) verbal constructs on opening night. Many of the laughs land well and more are sure to come as the production gets its balance.

Niccole Powers has created a multi-setting design that shifts from Joneses home to a market to other Joneses home with relative ease, though scene changes could benefit from some tightening to move the action along. Ellen Strauser’s costumes and Brian Hagy’s lighting provide helpful clues to the characters’ motivations and occasional desperation. Sound effects by Austin Fuoss are sometimes puzzling in their apparent use of Tuvan throat singing to signal a change.

It is difficult to explain how a production advertised to run 100 minutes finally ends after approximately 145. The noted 10-minute intermission may actually add as much as 20 minutes to the running time.

Where do the other 25 minutes arise?

It is a question for which the director and company need to find an answer.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His theater writing has appeared in many publications, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The New York Times.