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ACT’s ‘Realistic Joneses’ looks at life on many levels

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From left, James Wagner, Allison Jean White, Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp make up the excellent ensemble cast in “The Realistic Joneses” at American Conservatory Theater. (Courtesy Kevin Berne) .

Playwright Will Eno has a brilliant way of manipulating language to probe the heart of the human experience, at least as seen in the current production of his four-hander, “The Realistic Joneses,” at American Conservatory Theater. (Rare local productions of his work include Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Tragedy: a tragedy” and Cutting Ball’s version of the metatheatrical solo “Thom Paine (based on nothing).”

Eno has been called a Samuel Beckett for our times, but “The Realistic Joneses,” in which two married couples in a woodsy neighborhood struggle with illness and existential anxiety, calls to mind Edward Albee, especially “A Delicate Balance.” Like the characters in that play, the two sets of Joneses have a sense of mortal dread as well as deep and confused longings.

When newcomers John (James Wagner) and Pony (Allison Jean White) suddenly appear in the backyard of Bob (Rod Gnapp) and Jennifer (Rebecca Watson), right in the middle of Jennifer’s attempt at a heart-to-heart talk with her husband, it’s a wonderfully, comically awkward beginning to a play in which, during a series of intense, emotionally packed scenes, social clumsiness and new attachments beautifully, and humorously, co-exist and resonate.

Bob, it transpires, is suffering from a mysterious illness, Harriman Leavey Syndrome, which affects his personality in a variety of ways and seems like an amalgam of many of the neurological diseases we all fear. His wife is trying her best to cope.

Soon enough it turns out that John has the same condition, manifesting in alarming ways. Pony, younger and flightier than Jennifer, must learn to cope, too.

In scenes between the two men, and in scenes in which Pony and Bob reach out to each other, as do Jennifer and John, Eno illuminates so much of the ways that men relate to each other in the world — the need to compete, the need to connect — and the ways that women see themselves, and each other, and deal with the men in their lives, that the play reverberates on multiple levels.

Loretta Greco directs with the lightest and most sensitive touch, placing all the scenes in the two grassy backyards (on Andrew Boyce’s set, with starry sky and luminous trees, and sound designer David Van Tieghem’s spooky hooting owls), situating the characters within the context of an all-enveloping, impervious natural world.

And the perfectly cast ensemble of actors finesses every moment of Eno’s rich, dense script.

The Realistic Joneses
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes April 3
Tickets: $25 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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