‘The Realistic Joneses,’
and ‘Mothers and Sons’
will travel ‘All the Way’
for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
by TONY VELLELA
Very smart people [or at least, people other people think of as smart], differ on what Gertrude Stein was referring to, when she wrote “There is no there there.” Was it Oakland, California? The big house that once stood on a certain street, but has since been demolished? The emerging American suburban class? It was Gertrude’s comment that was the first thing I said to my friend, as we taxied uptown, when he asked what I thought of Will Eno’s new play, “The Realistic Joneses,” which we’d just seen. He shared my confusion(s) about the previous one hundred minutes.
Just as someone might admire a jazz quartet’s deft performance skills, but find the piece they’d chosen less than worthy of their talents, individual and collective, it is also like that quartet I admire, or even hold in awe, what the outstanding actors Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei are playing their roles. They have made Eno’s characters appear to possess rare insights, or to have harnessed cosmic truths, or to have conquered fears of their own pending mortalities or to comprehend those other Big Life Mysteries the rest of us can’t even describe.
The Playbill notes tell us that the older couple Joneses, Jennifer [Collette] and Bob [Letts], reside in “a smallish town not far from some mountains, Time: Present.” The younger Joneses, Pony [Tomei] and Bob [Hall] have just moved into the house next door. Both couples are childless. It is revealed that the Messrs. Jones both suffer from a rare, degenerative, neurological, fatal condition, something about abnormal levels of copper intake. Their disease stands out as the story’s most comprehensible serious fact, since, as in so many other stories down through the millenia, it’s a great candidate for causing dramatic denouement consequences. The olders live here because the most accomplished specialist in that medical field practices here; the youngers have moved here for the same reason.
Each Jones possesses particular behavioral qualities – not unique, but distinctive – such as Bob’s trouble finding or using the right word to fit his intended meaning, or John’s acerbic, unpredictably-employed wit, or the wide-eyed cheeriness of a Disney character [preferably musical, preferably from the animal or insect kingdom], that gives Pony her perky two-dimensionality. And these four actors treat us to a truly glorious display of what it means to be a great actor, how to marshal the widest range of facial expressions, judiciously employed pauses, vocal spoken-word virtuosity, expressive body language(s) – the works, performances that are joys to behold!
Eno has us witness what seems like dozens of events involving just about every possible combination four people can make. Somebody stumbles upon a dead squirrel, and while others ponder burial rites and recite a requiem, another unceremoniously dumps it into a plastic trash bag. One couple puts a broken lamp out with the trash, but the other husband takes it in, and repairs it, so it gives off light. The men stare at the night-time sky, but bicker over who looks where. A one-from-each set couple acknowledge a mutual attraction, and may or may not consummate it. One wife hears sounds behind a locked bathroom door, but doesn’t offer a guess that they are the sounds of her husband masturbating. Well-served by the delicate direction of Sam Gold, this A-list cast modulates Eno’s non-sequitors, terse exchanges, elliptical phrasing and banal banter, to construct the types of familiar delivery rhythms anyone weaned on American sitcoms has been conditioned to laugh at. And, for the most part, audiences who have paid top dollar, oblige.
All this creates an expectation that the aggregate result, having been constructed like those movie trailer clips featuring tantalizing moments, suggestive situations, out-of-context exchanges and revealed emotions, will provide answers, however incomplete, to the basic questions: Who are these people, What are they doing, When and Where are they doing it, and Why.
Eno is being heralded as a wunderkind who has boldly taken that classic five-W’s list, the foundation of any solid news article, or any story worth telling, especially in the traditional ‘well-made play,’ and shredding it, flinging random pieces against a glue-coated wall. [Jeez, I hope you can follow that!] Despite how avant-garde, how daring that may sound, “The Realistic Joneses” comes across as a 21st century echo of the post-absurdist theatre that’s been kicking around for maybe three-score-plus years. Maybe they’re so named to reference Generation Jones, born between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, noted for their skepticism, unrewarded initial optimism and unmet expectations. Eno’s Jones ensemble comes across as the theatrical grandchildren of Eugene Ionescu – the mid-twentieth century playwright who eschewed linear plotting structure, using instead an amalgam of sketches and scenes, a description that fits “TRJ.” After all, some say the surname Jones is derived from the male given name, Ion. Like Ionescu.
So, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, maybe there is a ‘there’ there, and it’s where the Joneses, older and younger, come to live and die. There are no pigeons on the grass, alas, just a dead squirrel.
Broadway has welcomed back another family younger – Younger, that is – the three-generation African-American family in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where it premiered in March, 1959. It remains as relevant as it was then.
In a cramped three-room apartment [common bathroom in the hall] in Chicago’s Southside, sometime between World War II and 1960, live a ten-year-old boy [Travis], his parents [Ruth and Walter Lee], his college-age aunt [Beneatha] and his grandmother [Lena]. Grandmother and aunt share the bedroom. Parents sleep behind the partitioned, repurposed former breakfast nook. The boy sleeps on the living room sofa. The small apartment is, in fact, this play’s sixth ‘character.’
From its opening moments, when Ruth quietly fills coffee cups, takes down a box of cold cereal and picks out eggs from the refrigerator, the effects of that privacy-robbing ‘character’ show plainly in her weary posture. Ruth, given a tender plainness by Sophie Okonedo, has not yet shared news of her unplanned pregnancy. She begins her morning ritual of rousing father and son, warning again that the bathroom will soon be occupied by others. Soon, all five Youngers are orbiting the kitchen table, a cool autumn Friday morning that looks like any other. But tomorrow, their world will change. The postman will deliver a check to Lena, the $10,000 life insurance payout on her deceased husband’s policy.
Denzel Washington portrays the presumed ‘head’ of the family [who in this production is ten years older than Hansberry's original, to accommodate Washington, 59], but overt prejudices of all kinds have kept him in a chauffeur’s uniform, behind the wheel of a wealthy Lake Shore Drive white businessman’s limousine, instead of pursuing his own personal aspirations for financial independence, aspirations in perpetual limbo.
Hansberry selected a line from the pungent Langston Hughes poem, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ to title her masterwork. Walter Lee’s dream is to buy in as a one-third partner in the purchase of a neighborhood liquor store deal his pals are organizing, and he needs his mother to invest that insurance money. She has her own dreams. Lena sees it as a guarantee that her daughter, Beneatha, will complete college and medical school, to become a doctor, itself an almost unheard-of career choice dream for any young, black woman of that time. Lena would also like to see her struggling, sunlight-deprived family moved into a modest little two-story, to fulfill a dream she and her husband nurtured as newlyweds. And it is Lena, whose every thought and action reflect a bedrock devotion to her church’s strict tenets, and who is this family’s de facto head, who believes owning a liquor store would violate everything she stands for, and what her late husband would support. Still, seeing the depths of her son’s disappointments and sense of failure, she makes an unexpected set of decisions. She puts down a $3,500 deposit on a house, albeit in an all-white community, and gives the rest to Walter Lee, instructing him to set aside, in a savings account, the sum of $3,000 for his sister’s education, and to open a new checking account in his name, a fresh start she hopes will rekindle his spirit. Later, when she’s out, the neighborhood sends a ‘welcoming committee’ representative, to buy back her down payment with a handsome profit, because they believe people are happiest when they are living with others who “share a common background,” because “our Negroes are happier when they live in their own communities.” Newly-empowered as head of his family, Walter Lee orders him to get out.
Director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the most recent Broadway revival , keeps the action on a low burner, even when Ruth reveals that she has put down a deposit for an abortion. Walter Lee disobeys Lena, turning over the entire $6,500, in cash, to his would-be partners, and it is when Bobo visits and admits sheepishly that the third pal has absconded with all the money they both gave him, to finalize the deal, that Washington flares up convincingly. His plan to realign their fate:
call the ‘welcomer’ and take their money, in exchange for tearing up the deed. When he arrives, check in hand, he is met by a changed Walter Lee, the reborn son of his parents’ faith, pride and sense of the true worth of freedom, who turns him away. And when Lena appears to give in and accept defeat, it is Ruth who vows “to wash every floor in America,” and who admonishes the other three adults to cover the monthly mortgage payments.
The moments when Walter Lee breaks into a near minstrel-show routine, showing how he will welcome ‘the man,’ some in the audience I saw it with cheered his choice to sell out, to barter his integrity, his dignity and the faith his parents taught him, for his own pay-back check. Was it the force and power of Washington’s convincing delivery? Don’t know. Do know that this playwright, the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, would shudder at that reaction.
“A Raisin in the Sun” stands as one of the best examples of a seemingly simple set of story lines held together by colloquial language of an era, by the ease of taking place in one unfussy set, by giving us carefully-drawn, specific, comprehensible characters tied together by relatable relationships, and by another almost always underrated component, a sense of humor.
If there is anything that would enhance this production, and bring it even more in line with Hansberry’s skilled creation, it would be to allow the script’s moments of levity to break out, as when Ruth responds to Beneatha, who wonders what whites are so afraid of. Beneatha: “What do they think we are going to do – eat ‘em?” Ruth: “No, honey, marry ‘em.”
Tribute must be paid to actor Stephen McKinley Henderson [Bobo], whose history with this play goes back at least a quarter of a century, when he played the same role in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, and the subsequent transfer to the PBS American Playhouse television film. It was very gratifying to see that Henderson received some well-deserved entrance applause.
[This play is on my short list of contemporary American classics, and during the first three Thursday nights in May, I'll be conducting a class at the 92nd St. Y that explores all its aspects. I'm also presenting segments of the in-depth interviews I did for my PBS series 'Character Studies, including Audra McDonald, Joe Morton and Phylicia Rashad, as well as original Broadway director Lloyd Richards, and original cast members John Fiedler and Ruby Dee. For more information, go to 92Y.org/classes and enter 'Understanding Raisin in the Sun' in the Search bar. Join me.]
It’s invisible, but there’s a bold straight line from the Youngers to the Johnsons. Of course, Lena Younger’s dream house was that little two-story in Clybourne Park. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s was considerably larger, with two-story columns in front and its color long ago gave it its name – the White House.
And LBJ got there by the grisliest turn of events – the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, and JFK’s blood had barely dried before his Texas veep had taken the oath office as our 36th President and Commander-in-Chief.
In Robert Schenkkan’s epic nearly three-hour “All the Way,” Johnson tries to balance epic-sized elements that shape his journey, from the man chosen for the second spot on the ticket because of the votes that came with naming a Texan, to the man elected to the top spot, despite the baggage that came with nominating one to be President. Johnson, and his devoted better half businesswoman Lady Bird, carried in their hearts the deep convictions required to steam-roll America’s colorful, cantankerous and churlish Congress into passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed the kind of housing discrimination Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family bravely confronted.
Years ago, that no-nonsense film critic Judith Crist used to call those fictional Hollywood epics jam-packed with second-tier stars ‘Hey there…’ pictures. ‘Hey there, it’s Elsa Lanchester.’ ‘Hey there, it’s Red Buttons.’ “All the Way” unspools with its own version of what Mrs. Crist used to do, only here, it’s the people who moved and shook that era . . . elected, appointed, anointed or self-appointed, but always political. During that year-long campaign to election night, in November, 1964, [this play gets its title from the slogan 'All the Way with LBJ!], Johnson used every tactic, every strategy, every owed but not yet redeemed favor, every roll-able pork barrel, every Congressional – hell, you surely get the idea. The man knew where every little governmental gear switch was, what it controlled, and he was a genius at the business of flipping those switches.
Even the most accomplished actors can feel intimidated when cast to portray a larger-than-life historical figure. And while Bryan Cranston possesses a passing resemblance with Johnson, as an actor, he chose to do what the best actors have always done when faced with this challenge – capture and present the essence, and forget about trying to become a carbon copy. Your knowledge of Lyndon – personal or political, public or private – will provide what you need, to know you’re viewing an electrifying performance from Cranston, an almost non-stop marathon of back-slapping, joking, cajoling, wheedling, everything that made LBJ such a master.
To appreciate fully what Schenkkan, Cranston and director Bill Rauch have managed to create, one should have some working knowledge of that time in America, and it is laudably masterful. Without it, all you’ll experience is a commendably-presented ‘hey there,’ evening, featuring Hubert Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, Strom Thurmond, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Sen. Maurine Neuberger, Sen. Robert Byrd, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert McNamara, Katharine Graham and a couple dozen of their best friends and worst enemies. If you can’t attach a few relevant facts to at least half the names on this list, find a great documentary about that year, watch it, then visit the Neil Simon Theatre.
The politics that underscore Terrence McNally’s new play “Mothers and Sons” owe much of their ’shape’ and ‘form’ to how civil rights activists and their nemesis counterparts confronted what they wanted to address, in particular, discrimination based on race. Marriage equality for gay men and lesbians barely registered on the radar screens of American society when LBJ focused on passage of his legacy legislation. And the remotest possibility of it becoming a reality seemed like it would become a casualty of the HIV epidemic. McNally’s never-seen character Andre did become one.
Set in the present, in a to-die-for Central Park West apartment, two people stand silent and motionless when the play begins. And for what seems like twenty or so minutes [it's probably more like three or four], the tall, lanky fortyish man [Frederick Weller] and the well-dressed, middle-aged woman [Tyne Daly] finally permit the smallest of talk, about the view, the wall of windows, even the weather, to fill the empty air. Is this a real estate agent showing the place to a perspective buyer? With the dropping of a few personal-referring nouns and the shifting of verb tenses from present to past, we finally realize that he, Cal, lives there, and that she, Katharine, has stopped in almost impulsively, en route to Europe. Two decades ago, her son Andre, and Cal, were in a committed, long-term relationship which the virus ended. Here, now, the two most important people in Andre’s life are in the same room, talking about nothing.
McNally brings them together to affect a reconciliation, however forced or insubstantial, but events of their shared past have since been overshadowed by very recent others – Cal is now married to the younger, less encumbered Will, fifteen years Cal’s junior, [Bobby Steggert] and the two have an outgoing, curious and endearing young son, Bud [Grayson Taylor]. Instead of finding a blank canvas where she can paint her grievances about Cal’s perceived failure to canonize her son, Katherine instead finds one splattered with vivid hues, new shapes, coloring outside the lines. The offer to review and share items from a box of items Andre left behind, shipped to Katherine and now returned to Cal is made to appear like an intrusion, a prodding to revive Andre’s memory, and the mere existence of the loving relationship he shared with Cal should, Katherine feels, be part of Bud’s personal story.
McNally wants us to understand the yellowing memories of a recent past, a devastating time that very nearly killed off two generations of a community that was already forced to self-sacrifice its rightful place in American society. For Katherine, and all the mothers who may have belatedly. and likely begrudgingly accepted who and what their sons were, having no living person to be connected to can lead, as she admits, to thoughts of suicide. She has more anger than places she has to inflict it. And finding her presumed potential former son-in-law contentedly kissing a new mate generates even more, despite Cal’s earnest attempt to move on.
It takes some real sleuthing to unearth, to define all the hurts and grievances, the unrealized expectations that all three adults carry. The new married couple seem to believe that their happy union is a testament to the kind of loving that Andre hoped to experience during a long life. The unsettled mother can’t fully heal a wound she can’t fully locate.
While it plays like the device that it is, young Bud’s earnest request that Katherine be his new grandmother at least puts an unearned coda on the proceedings. All four cast members deliver smooth, comfortable performance, though more creativity from director Sheryl Kaller would enliven the proceedings, which even at a running time of ninety minutes seems long.
Other plays from Terrence McNally, written closer to the time that “Mothers and Sons” seeks to recall, will give you a more authentic window into that time. I recommend getting acquainted with his “Lisbon Traviata” , “Lips Together! Teeth Apart”  and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” , as well as any McNally collection that includes “Andre’s Mother,” a short play written in 1988 which gave birth to our Katherine and Cal. . . Reading Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Kentucky Cycle,” can seem daunting when you pull it off the book shelf, but the writing is compelling, and remarkably, reading it permits you to stop, savor, re-read and even pause to research something or somebody. Same thing with “All the Way.”
TONY VELLELA wrote the award-winning play ‘Admissions,’ published by Playscripts. His ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre’ is published by ArtAge Publications. He wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre ‘Character Studies.’ He begins a new series of classes in May at the 92nd St. Y – go to 92Y.org/classes and enter ‘Understanding A Raisin in the Sun’ in the Search bar.