Review: The Realistic Joneses (Patina Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 13 -30, 2019
Playwright: Will Eno
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Jeff Houston, Suzann James, David Jeffrey, Jodine Muir
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
There are two straight couples living across the street from each other, both named Jones. In The Realistic Joneses, characters go about their average mundane small town lives, but there is something distinctly strange about the way they talk. Playwright Will Eno’s dialogue feels like high art, bizarre yet completely believable, for a way of excavating truths about the human condition, that only the medium of performance can deliver. Resolutely quirky, The Realistic Joneses brings upheaval to concepts of normalcy that inform Western life. The Joneses speak what they are supposed to, but also what they are not. They portray the ordinary in a manner that creates turbulence, making us laugh because we understand all the arbitrariness of rules that fundamentally govern the politeness of society.

Actor David Jeffrey finds the right pitch for conveying the play’s humour, deadpan but deliberate in an interpretation of John that almost makes him seem an alien pretending to be human. There is no doubt that we can all relate to this sense of displacement, of being awkward in social situations. Director Julie Baz’s understated approach is surprisingly effective in depicting the comedy inherent in our daily lives, but an emphasis on naturalism can sometimes take away from Eno’s heightened style. The very subdued closing scenes abandon the laughs, in search of poignancy, which sadly never quite materialises.

It is a splendid title, that reveals so much about how we present our selves to the world. We aim to be realistic, of appearing to look real, probably because actually being real is not something our collective existence is able to cope with. Those who truly speak their minds are ostracised, maybe even cast as insane, so we learn where the limits are, and negotiate within those rigid borders. There is always something false in how we communicate, especially when in groups. The answer is not to withdraw and hide in arrogant isolation, but to question all that is shown to us. Cynicism, one would argue, is necessary in one’s participation in the world. The real challenge is making that cynicism sit side by side, with an earnestness we must never give up, in our involvement with this world.

5 Questions with Suzann James and Jodine Muir

Suzann James

Jodine Muir: What was your first acting experience and what made you want to act as a career?
Suzann James: Ha ha! I was living in Hong Kong and was cast as an alter ego in Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song. I was also the choreographer but I didn’t know how to read music, so the whole cast had to put up with my learned harmonies whilst learning the dance routines. I knew I wanted to perform after seeing and being thoroughly captivated by a live performance of Steel Magnolias. I figured I was overseas, nobody knew me, so I had a license to fail… or not. So I went for it!

You have been a great support to your actress daughter, in particular keeping it ‘realistic’ to the highs and lows of an acting career. Did you have any similar support when you took up acting or did you learn on the job?
Yeah, no. I learnt on the job. And then got myself into a performing arts academy. And my daughter has kind of done the same thing. She was cast in an international musical, got the bug and now goes to a performing arts school. I guess we’re a little backwards in moving forwards.

What were your first impressions of the play The Realistic Joneses, what inspired you to get involved and do you have a personal connection to its themes?
Easy, I loved the script. And I kept getting so much more out of it every time I read it. I loved the way Will Eno’s quirky characters deal and react so differently to life’s dilemmas. It’s great how he can take the most mundane or depressing of subjects and make them funny and surprising. Actually I do have a nephew that has a similar challenge to the Joneses’ dilemma, and from my experience there are definitely parallels in the ways that they cope.

Your character in The Realistic Joneses seems to be the only one grounded in reality and has been called the ‘straight one’ to the other characters who appear to be avoiding reality. Do you feel this is true of your character and what other discoveries have you made?
Yes, she is sensible and has taken on the role as the responsible one. In her marriage she carries the intellectual and emotional burden, but funnily, resorts to her own quiet little crazy way of venting.

Why do you think these two odd couples in The Realistic Joneses are drawn together?
I think they all, just quietly, need each other. Filling voids, buoying spirits, entertaining, that sort of thing. It makes me think that we work better as a community. Friendships are invaluable. Feeling uncomfortable can be liberating and some issues are too big to deal with on your own. The challenges they’re facing have given them a greater appreciation of life, for living in the moment and of nature and the world around them.

Jodine Muir

Suzann James: What makes you laugh about your character, Pony?
Jodine Muir: Yes she does make me laugh a lot! I was drawn to Pony because she seemed to be having the most fun, at the expense of others! She says and does what she wants, whatever suits her mood. She doesn’t seem to be able to cope with much in her adult life and relies on others to help keep her together.

Have you ever had crazy neighbours?
Yes a few, they certainly keep things interesting! Right now I live next door to an aged care facility. One gentleman doesn’t have any noise awareness and mostly shouts his words in a muffled kind of way. Oddly enough, he manages to have many ongoing and engaging conversations with the staff and other occupants but I can never understand a word he says. It’s usually what wakes me up early in the morning!

Are you sympathetic to sick people? Or do you prefer to avoid them?
Quite the opposite of my character Pony, I would say that I am very nurturing and caring… probably to the point of being annoying! However, like Pony, if it impedes on my ability to sleep then my patience will be tested!

Have you seen anything else by Will Eno?
No I haven’t but I had heard of him and had planned to read some of his plays. That was the first reason I applied for the auditions. As soon as I read the play, I was hooked. I found the quirky behaviour and awkward dialogue between the characters delicious!

What do you think somebody might write about Pony after she’s gone?
Oh I love this question! Well, I think that they might say: “She made a few mistakes along the way but her heart was always in the right place!” Or perhaps… “She managed to avoid life and has instead found peace”.

Suzann James and Jodine Muir can be seen in The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno.
Dates: 13 – 30 Mar, 2019
Venue: Limelight On Oxford