All plays employ words. But relatively few are about words — about how we use language to reveal and conceal, to amuse and distract.
In Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses,” now getting its Kansas City premiere in an impeccably performed Actor’s Theatre production at Union Station, words are shuttlecocks batted about in a carefully choreographed game of verbal badminton.
A series of seemingly banal conversations involving two couples living in a small town at the foot of a mountain range, “Joneses” diverts us with its rampant humor, only to break our hearts when we recognize the genuine human pain that wit is meant to disguise and deflect.
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At first glance Bob and Jennifer Jones (Phil Fiorini, Carla Noack) appear to be a fairly typical couple for their age (late 50s, early 60s). They bicker. They talk in shorthand born of years of cohabitation.
Jennifer wants real conversation, something Bob, in classic male fashion, avoids. When she complains that they don’t talk, he responds: “What are we doing right now? Math?”
We soon discover that their relationship is in large part dictated by a rare degenerative neurological disease Bob has developed. It’s not Alzheimer’s, but the progression of symptoms is pretty much the same.
He’s not the best patient. While Jennifer works overtime to be the conscientious caregiver, Bob falls back on old-fart grumpiness. It’s a way of hiding his fear.
Enter a younger couple — John and Pony Jones (Brian Paulette, Ashley Pankow) — who have moved in just down the road.
She’s a textbook case of arrested adolescence, a slightly ditzy young woman who runs her own online greeting card business, though she’s getting little satisfaction from it: “I feel I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.”
He’s a heating and cooling technician, sardonic and a bit goofy, given to mental zigging and zagging that is both hugely amusing in an oddball way and, perhaps, a symptom of a more troubling condition.
The two Jones families find plenty of occasions to interact, resulting in some mild flirting between Jennifer and her new neighbor John and perhaps something more carnal between the coltish Pony and the lumbering Bob.
And that’s about it as far as plot goes. But Eno is less concerned with big story arcs than with the tiny bombshells sprinkled among seemingly idle chitchat. Director John Rensenhouse and his players deliver these revelations so deftly and with such overriding humor that it isn’t until later that we realize just how much they are sharing, how deep the feelings run.
Tech credits are first-rate, dominated by Zoe Still’s setting (the outline of a house against a panoramic painting of a mountain range) and subtly fleshed out by Jonathan Robertson’s aural backdrop of nature sounds.
Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “The Realistic Joneses” continues through June 11 at the City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6662 or see kcactors.org.