At Boulder’s Dairy Center, words fail in Will Eno’s tragically funny exploration of relationships

We spend an awful lot of time as people saying shit to one another that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Why do we bother?

That seems to be the conclusion of playwright Will Eno, whose 2012 play The Realistic Joneses opened this weekend at Boulder’s Dairy Center. A production of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, the show features a stellar lineup of familiar BETC actors in a well-wrought production directed by Stephen Weitz.

Jennifer and Bob Jones (Emily Paton Davies and Michael Morgan) are a dyspeptic middle-aged couple marking time in their backyard when Pony and John Jones (Kate Parkin and Casey Andree) bang through their garbage cans to pop by for a neighborly hello.

The younger couple just moved into the rental up the street, but after handing over a bottle of wine as a friendly gesture, the typical actions of new neighbors quickly go by the board as Eno’s script begins deconstructing the niceties of interlocution.

Bob is morose (sick, we soon learn), shrugging his way through another day as the more-or-less normal Jennifer endures his crap with Job-like patience. Pony and John appear to be in a competition as to which one of them can make a more negative impression on the neighbors. Within a minute or two, they both ask to use the bathroom — a consequence, we learn, of too much free iced tea at the restaurant they just left.

Eno’s dark and clever dialogue makes for quite a few laughs at the top of the show (which runs nearly two hours sans intermission), but as time goes on the funny wanes as we learn most of the wit is either unintentional or a purposeful façade to hide deep sadness or anxiety. Many of the lines in the script wash up on a rocky shore where the meaning is less important than its absence.

In Eno’s world, some things — often the most important things — cannot be adequately articulated.

Life in an emotional desert

This is, at its heart, a sad play about sad people living rather sad lives. With so much of the dialogue being existential mutterings about the futility of it all, I couldn’t help but wonder myself why … this play. I couldn’t say if it was good or bad or somewhere in between.

It just sorta was.

That aside, The Realistic Joneses benefits from four exceptional actors, and Weitz got strong performances from all of them with minimal movement on a simple but functional set.

As Bob, Morgan takes gloom to new levels while deftly delivering a series of very funny lines that could just as easily make us cry.

Davies is spot-on as the good wife just doing what she needs to do to support Bob while keeping their shitty marriage from crashing on the rocks. It’s no surprise that the arrival of the other Joneses tips the balance into the negative column.

As the disruptors, Pony and John seem an unlikely pair at first, but the rot at the core of their own marriage is pervasive.

Parkin juggles Pony’s hippie-chick persona with the deep anxiety of a suburban belle, and her frailty appeals to the equally fragile Bob. While their eventual liaison seems improbable, it sets up the friction necessary to move things along.

As John, Andree excels as a linguistic bomb thrower with a peerless ability to put people on edge. You could call it rude, but for John it’s just his truth-telling way of being real. It becomes tedious for Jennifer especially, and as the play wears on, it’s less surprising for the audience as well.

Somehow, these unlikely friends and bedfellows arrive at a détente of sorts, a grudgingly satisfying place where their proximity to one another becomes marginally better than going it alone. This is not a destination celebrated with great fanfare or revelations. It’s more like you had to go to the mall to do a return at Dillard’s and you finally found a parking spot in the north 40.

This mildly acceptable level of human interaction, Eno suggests, is as good as it gets. The Realistic Joneses has an air of existentialism about it, but there remains the barest hint that life may be just barely tolerable if we can hold our noses in just the right way.

It’s not exactly a bumper-sticker ready philosophy, but for the peculiar little part of the world inhabited by the Joneses, it’ll have to do.

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Photos: Michael Ensminger