Thursday, April 17, 2014

Broadway Theater Roundup—‘The Realistic Joneses’ and ‘Mothers and Sons’

The Realistic Joneses
Written by Will Eno; directed by Sam Gold
Previews began March l3, 2014; opened April 6
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY
therealisticjoneses.com

Mothers and Sons
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Sheryl Kaller
Previews began February 23, 2014; opened March 24
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY
mothersandsonsbroadway.com

Letts and Tomei in The Realistic Joneses (photo: Joan Marcus)
Will Eno’s brand of absurdism is an acquired taste. His promising short works nod to Beckett and Albee, but his full-length plays Middletown, Thom Pain and The Realistic Joneses are stretched unbearably thin. Although some find profundity and insight in his work, that seems like wishful thinking: his cascading lines of dialogue, instead of exploding into meaning, too often fizzle into meaninglessness.

The Realistic Joneses introduces two couples, both improbably named Jones, which are neighbors in a bucolic mountain area. Stable long-timers Jennifer and Bob welcome the slightly daffy newcomers John and Pony; at the start, John’s non-sequiturs and inappropriate outbursts are mocked by an incredulous Bob, whose wife Jennifer is the epitome of levelheadedness, especially when compared to the airheaded Pony.

Soon, however, John insinuates himself, in a rather unlikely fashion, into Jennifer’s good graces, while—even more ludicrously—Bob and Pony begin an affair. That’s about the extent of the plot: the play has been constructed as a series of blackouts featuring two, three or all four Joneses. And Eno’s epigrammatic dialogue repeatedly falls flat, whether it concerns a dead squirrel in the backyard, a fictional disease both men suffer from or even John mocking the dullness of Bob’s name, to which Jennifer quickly shoots back a riposte about dyslexics liking it—a quip more clever than funny.

By the time we reach the would-be deep finale showing the Jones quartet (the title’s “realistic” is another Eno joke) idly chatting, Eno’s shallow exploration of humanity has very little of import to impart. On David Zinn’s aptly cluttered set, director Sam Gold artfully paces this disjointed  sitcom, while the cast—Toni Collette (Jennifer), Michael C. Hall (John), Marisa Tomei (Pony) and especially Tracy Letts (Bob)—works hard, and at times effectively, to make it all seem more pointed than pointless.

Weller and Daly in Mothers and Sons (photo: Joan Marcus)
That Mothers and Sons is one of Terrence McNally’s most personal plays is obvious, dealing as it does with the AIDS crisis, gay marriage and clueless parents of homosexuals; its strengths and weaknesses stem directly from wearing its heart on its sleeve.

McNally’s schematic set-up—while visiting her long-dead son Andre’s lover Cal on the Upper West Side to get some closure, grand dame Katharine meets Cal’s husband Will and their adopted young son Bud—is merely an excuse for him to pontificate about subjects still near to his heart and own life. The no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Katharine barks nastily at Cal upon her arrival, hiding her own fear and anger over her son’s death from AIDS 20 years earlier: her outbursts, while sometimes funny, are nearly always vitriolic. And McNally stacks his dramatic deck by making Cal, Will and Bud too good to be true—especially young Bud, a sentimental figure of vindication and love who singlehandedly transforms Katharine from nasty old lady to caring “grandmother.”

Mothers and Sons is preachy and didactic, but McNally doesn’t care; he wants to emphasize to audiences that the AIDS era was recent history that shouldn’t be repeated and that the current battle for gay equality is a clear next step for a cultured society. True, there are cheap shots at Dallas and Port Chester, and Katharine herself is self-contradictory: if she grew up in a NYC suburb, why was/is she so obtuse about her gay son? It’s obviously so that McNally can have it both ways, letting Katharine simultaneously raging against right-wing Texan rubes and be ignorant of her son’s sexuality, insisting that it was New York that turned him gay when he moved there at age 18.

Whatever its faults, McNally’s topical play has well-earned laughs and tears. Sheryl Kaller directs persuasively on John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous set—who wouldn’t want to live in this well-appointed apartment that overlooks Central Park?—and the acting quartet is beyond reproach. Grayson Taylor’s Bud is as adorable as written, Bobby Steggert ensures Will’s niceness doesn’t equal blandness, and Frederick Weller makes a strong, full-blooded character out of the stick figure of Cal.

Then there’s Tyne Daly, who makes Katharine as big a diva prowling the stage as the actress was as Maria Callas in McNally’s Master Class. Daly gives her lines more bite, an added dollop of bitterness tinged with sadness, that gives Katharine an extra dimension not found in the script. If the play itself is a bumpy, manipulative ride, at least a master navigator is at the controls.

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