A now-wry, now-sober riff on marriage and the awareness of death, featuring two sometimes awkward and secretive small-town couples who share a surname, “Realistic Joneses” is receiving a Washington area premiere at Spooky Action Theater. Under the direction of Gillian Drake, Brandon McCoy (“Veep”) and other actors interpret a play that, Eno says, acknowledges “the way we can sort of carry our own mortality around like it’s a big, dirty secret. And in wanting to hide that from other people, we end up accidentally hiding all sorts of other parts of ourselves.”
“Realistic Joneses” works in a more traditional mode than some of Eno’s scripts. “Thom Pain (based on nothing)”— the piece that shot him to U.S. fame in 2005, after he’d already made inroads in the U.K. — is a sly, fourth-wall-shattering monologue whose existential ruminations encompass only fleeting glimpses of story. His metatheatrical paean to ordinary life “The Flu Season” features characters named Prologue and Epilogue. The title character in “The Underlying Chris” seems to have no fixed identity.
Like his writing, Eno’s career has been quirky. Raised in Massachusetts, he spent years as a competitive cyclist before deciding he wanted to pursue other things. Although he hadn’t grown up attending theater regularly and didn’t study the subject at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he eventually latched on to reading Shakespeare, a pastime that led to plays by other dramatists and to writing his own scripts. “The attraction had to do with the mystery of bodies and light and words,” he recalls, speaking by phone from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, actress Maria Dizzia (“Orange Is the New Black”) and their daughter.
Eno was working as a proofreader of psychology textbooks when he snagged a courier flight to London and audaciously dropped his plays off around town. Perhaps influenced by
jet lag or quiet desperation, he included an unusual cover letter when he left a copy of “Tragedy: A Tragedy” at the National Theatre. “I’m right-handed, and I wrote a note with my left hand saying, ‘I’m right-handed and I’m writing this with my left hand,’ so it looked kind of suspicious and scrawly,” he remembers. “And for whatever reason, they read the play.” The National mounted a reading of the piece in 2000, and London’s Gate Theatre staged the world premiere in 2001.
As the title of “Tragedy” might suggest, Eno does not shy away from the bleaker aspects of human experience even as he celebrates the wonder of the ordinary. His plays’ unflinching existential awareness, together with their dark humor and flouting of theatrical convention, have led to comparisons with Beckett.
“I don’t really feel that one,” Eno says of the analogy, while noting that he admires Beckett. More generally, he says his outlook is anything but pessimistic. “I cannot get over how much I love being alive, and how much I love life,” he marvels. “In a crazy way, I can’t get through dinner, because I’m so excited thinking about breakfast.”
That candy-bright optimism perhaps made him a fitting collaborator on the live-action Skittles commercial, which had one performance at a midtown Manhattan theater — not, technically, a Broadway venue — on Super Bowl Sunday last year. Eno was recruited for the tongue-in-cheek project and co-wrote the musical’s book; his recurrent collaborator Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) starred. Eno, who admits to liking Skittles “pretty well,” found the experience entirely joyous.
Other than helping to promote confectionary, his recent projects have included revising his 2013 play “Gnit” — a reinvention of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” — for its run this month at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.
He has also worked with documentary filmmaker and theater director Frederick Wiseman to draft a French version of “The Realistic Joneses” titled “Juste Les Jones.” Helping the script gain momentum abroad will expose more people to what Eno sees as the play’s actionable message about openness.
“My great hope—among many hopes—would be that maybe somebody might walk out of that play and want to share their fears and vulnerabilities more,” Eno says.
The Realistic Joneses
Spooky Action Theater, Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. 202-248-0301. spookyaction.com.
Dates: Through April 5.