When playwright Will Eno’s funny/sad comedy/drama “The Realistic Joneses” debuted on Broadway nearly two years ago, several critics wondered “Why?”
Unqualified praise for the work was nearly unanimous, and names such as Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee were used to give Eno’s writing a contex. But wasn’t such a subtle, smartly layered but meditative diversion more of a downtown thing than an uptown entertainment? Would Broadway audiences be amused or mystified?
The production played well, boosted by the star power of its highly skilled cast (Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, and Marisa Tomei) and the highly favorable reviews. My own experience of seeing that production was akin to hearing a great jazz quartet spin through a perfect set. The characters felt inhabited, not performed, and the overall effect was of being enveloped in a poem whispered in your head.
This weekend, B Street Theatre debuts its own production of the challenging play, which examines mortality, marriage and the way people deal with the unexpected randomness of life.
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The B3 Series offering features a heady cast of its most experienced and dependable company actors. Dave Pierini, Elisabeth Nunziato, Dana Brooke and John Lamb, who have more than 150 B Street productions between them and thousands of hours on stage together, will play the carefully crafted pair of moody married couples, both named Jones.
“It’s very intimate and very fun,” said artistic director Buck Busfield, who directs the stellar, familiar group.
“We do a lot of joking and teasing about each other’s acting, which is so forbidden in any other rehearsal room. Elisabeth will say to Dave. ‘Really? Are you gonna do that?’ and seriously, that’s just not done in other rooms except maybe sketch comedy,” Busfield said.
Pierini began his acting career with B Street in 1990 and plays the terse Bob Jones, who is married to Elisabeth Nunziato’s grounded Jennifer Jones. Nunziato is a founding member of the B Street acting company.
Both are familiar with the concentrated rehearsal process at B Street, which can be intimidating to actors used to longer development periods. B Street typically puts up its productions in three to four weeks – roughly half the rehearsal periods at most theaters.
“I have complete confidence that the work’s going to get done,” Busfield said.
“You’re always reworking the calendar internally to make sure we get to where we want to get to, but the thing I don’t have to do (is) … to teach anyone to act, and that’s what takes the most time as a director, to teach somebody to act.”
While Nunziato and Lamb worked on a scene with Busfield, Pierini took a break.
“Anytime we get cast together in any of these combinations there’s always the sense that whatever the script’s going to ask of me to do, I don’t ever have to think about the other actor,” Pierini said.
Pierini said his confidence in his cast mates allows him to not only develop his character but use his fellow actors for insight as well.
“I can rely on them to help me – not because they’re thinking about my performance but because they’re doing their own process, and if I’m there and I’m listening then I’m reacting to whatever they’re giving me and that sometimes helps shape what I’m doing,” he said.
Brooke plays the mysterious and ethereal Pony Jones, who is married to Lamb’s secretive John Jones. She also is a founding member of B Street Theatre’s acting company with over 20 productions with the company on her résumé. Even though she now lives in New York, B Street remains her artistic home.
“I never feel judged here,” Brooke said. “To come into a project having that – it’s a great gift because I feel an immense freedom to explore.”
Later Nunziato, also a founding member of B Street Theatre’s acting company, said the assurance she has with the others allows her to extend herself in rehearsal and performance.
“When you go into a new group, you don’t know who can catch you if you fall,” Nunziato said. “But in this case, I have no concerns about that, so I only have to worry about myself. I know I have great people around me. I don’t want to let them down – that’s my major concern.”
Lamb said they have a common language and understanding that moves the rehearsals at the needed pace.
“Some intuitive things happen,” he said.
The comfort creates numerous levels of input that comes from the years of working together and trust built through numerous collaborations.
“I was teasing them this morning, saying they’re all self-directing,” Busfield said. “I don’t even need to show up.”
Nunziato said Busfield can tell her things other directors wouldn’t know how to.
“The other day Buck gave me a note only someone you have a 20-year history with can give you,” she said.
“He just had to say very little, but it’s a sweeping adjustment for the whole piece, and I thought, ‘Well, you couldn’t do that with new collaborators.’ He would have to go home and ruminate on how to delicately deliver this note to the actor. That’s not what happens here – you just slip it right in.”
Eno’s script provides numerous challenges because of its nuances and the layers of comedy and drama involved. Busfield has to decide when to play certain elements.
“This can go any number of ways and that’s what we spend most of our time in rehearsal talking about,” he said.
“Do we want to get that laugh? Or blow through those three to get that one?” Busfield said most scripts spend time building up to a joke or a dramatic moment. Not so with Eno.
“It’s all because he’s so fluid and clever. So you just don’t know how much deference to pay to the cleverness – if you want to get one really good one or 10 funny little ones.”
How the production goes will likely be a response to audience reactions and his cast’s ability to change direction.
“We’ll probably just get them out there loud and fast and see if the audience tells us to stop.”
The B Street process points toward its audience having an experience with the actors onstage rather than the actors having experiences with each other.
“Buck always says that the week before you go into tech, you start to add in this musicality,” Pierini said.
“It makes it stage-worthy as opposed to just people up there ‘being real.’ It helps the audience understand the story clearly. Whether they’re conscious of that going on or not, that’s what happening.”
The Realistic Joneses
What: Sacramento premiere of Will Eno’s critically acclaimed dark comedy. With Dana Brooke, John Lamb, Elisabeth Nunziato and Dave Pierini. Buck Busfield directs.
When: Previews 7 p.m. through Friday, Jan. 8. Opens 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9. Runs through Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Thursdays; some 1 p.m. Sunday matinees
Where: The B2 Stage of B Street Theatre, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Tickets: $25-$35; $15 student rush
Information: 916-443-5300; bstreettheatre.org