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The unlikely start for Will Eno's latest play
The road to Broadway can sometimes take unpredictable paths. For example, via an infamously sprawling Norwegian epic.
With his fractured, probing riffs on language and fate, the playwright Will Eno has spent the last decade becoming an Off-Broadway fixture, but he's only now making his Broadway debut with The Realistic Joneses, which is now in previews at the Lyceum Theatre. Director Sam Gold says Eno stumbled onto the idea for the show four or five years ago, while the two were developing an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
For those who know Eno's work, that's might be a startling idea. Yes, he wrote the ensemble piece Middletown, but his best known plays are arguably solo pieces like Thom Pain and Title and Deed. What's it like to travel from that intimate focus to Ibsen's five acts and dozens of characters? "Well, he does have one actor who played [the entire town]," Gold says of the adaptation, which eventually became known as Gnit. "He speaks the lines of about 20 different townspeople.">
Plus, in an apt turn of events for a play that is famously about procrastination, Peer Gynt sent Eno and Gold in an entirely different direction. As they were working on Gnit, which premiered at the Humana Festival last year, the seed was planted for The Realistic Joneses.
This play follows a more traditional template, with its four small-town characters (played by Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei) navigating medical woes and taking tentative stabs at infidelity. But even in such workaday settings as a back yard and a grocery store, Eno's signature musings still burrow their way into the quirks and banalities of the English language. "He's wrestling with realism as a theatrical genre, and he's wrestling with this word 'real' that is thrown around a lot," Gold says.
One of Gold's biggest challenges with the play, then, is to straddle the concrete and the cosmic. "These characters are exploring their relationships in a more pedestrian way," he says. "But they're also engaging with these cosmic and existential elements of the world. And so I spend a lot of time making sure the audience isn't steered into just one of those levels. You have to make up your own rules as you go along with Will. It demands a different vocabulary for how you talk to actors."
Gold, who has established fruitful relationships with the likes of Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Flick) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), describes Eno's writing style as being particularly methodical. "Will didn't come in with a draft," he says of Joneses. "He built this play slowly, steadily, and meticulously. He kept plugging away, knowing where the play would go but building it scene by scene."
The two benefited from a series of readings as well as from a Yale Rep production that took place in 2012. Only one actor remains from that production: Letts, with whom Gold had previously worked on a California production of Letts's August: Osage County.
"He's such a man of the theatre," Gold says of Letts. "I mean, I would let him direct me in something."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Joan Marcus