Jonesing for cosmic connection in ACT’s Joneses

The Realistic Joneses
The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s The Realistic Joneses includes, from left, James Wagner as John Jones, Allison Jean White as Pony, Rebecca Watson as Jennifer Jones and Rod Gnapp as Bob Jones. Below: Watson’s Jen and Gnapp’s Bob hang out in the backyard in Will Eno’s comic drama. Photos by Kevin Berne

The topic is: things that have happened. That broad, yet somehow quite specific, statement comes from a character in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses now on stage at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Another broad yet specific topic might be: lives that are lived.

Eno is one of those playwrights whose gift seems to be making raising the bizarre, often absurd experience of human existence to the level of cosmic grace and beauty. How he does that exactly is a bit of a mystery, as it should be, but it’s on fully display in Joneses even more than it was in several of his remarkable earlier plays such as Tragedy: A Tragedy and Middletown. Eno has a dash of Samuell Beckett, more than a pinch of Thornton Wilder and a heaping helping of any smart stand-up comedian you’d care to name.

With The Joneses, Eno takes two couples, both with the last name Jones (my grandfather once told me everyone was born Jones but only the good ones stay that way) and lets them reflect on each other and affect one another. A quiet, four-person play would seem to be out of place on the massive Geary stage, but that is not the case. As director Loretta Greco is well aware, Eno is micro and macro. There’s an epic quality to his intimacy, and that’s reflected in Greco’s beautiful production, which features a set by Andrew Boyce that offers the backyards of two homes in suburban American (somewhere near the mountains and sea, we’re told). There’s a massive tree canopy that allows some visibility of the stars, and that’s important. As I said before, this play opens up in its curious way, to the cosmic. Size matters here, and the production makes the vastness count.

One quiet night, interrupted only by the rustling and chirping of night sound, Bob and Jennifer Jones (Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson) are outside at their picnic table. You could say they were talking, but that becomes a topic of discussion: are they talking, really talking? Or are they “throwing words at each other.” Just as they might be veering from throwing to talking, they are interrupted by new neighbors, Pony (Allison Jean White) and John (James Wagner), bearing greetings and a bottle of wine.

The Realistic Joneses

From here, we discover interesting connections within this quartet as Eno shuffles them up – a grocery store meeting here, late-night backyard encounter there – and casts a shadow of mortality in the form of an illness one character calls “the Benny Goodman Experience.” There is nothing “normal” about this play, not its rhythms, not its character interactions, not its trajectory. And yet, as it proceeds through its one hour and 45 minutes, it gains a weight and a poignancy that is surprising, especially given how many good laughs it offers. The wonderful cast and Greco can take a lot of credit for that, but the real architect here is Eno.

The engine of the play is John, a man who is searching and struggling and suffering. The path his thoughts, and consequently his words, take give rise to much of the humor because he’s the king of the unfiltered non sequitor. He says of his wife, “What my lady wants, with some huge and basic exceptions, my lady gets.” Or when he asks Jennifer if she has any brothers, Jen answers that she has two half-sisters. “So that sort of equals a brother,” John says. He also points out later on that “even a hundred-year-old fake is an antique.”

Pony and John have their comically absurd moments as well. Pony, in a moment of frustration with her life, says, “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.” Or something. Then she muses on other tracks her life might have taken: “I probably would’ve overdosed on drugs, if I’d gotten into drugs and then taken too many.” Only Jennifer seems to be the fully anchored grownup in the group, the mother figure who is as lost and in search of something as the rest of them. She just functions in everyday life at a higher level than they do.

The Realistic Joneses is, in its subdued, humorous way, stunning, a deeply felt examination of what we do with this life and these brains and these souls. The ending, as surprising as everything else in the play, brought to mind the comedian Rita Rudner’s deep philosophical query: “Any questions? Any answers? Anyone care for a mint?”

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses continues thorugh March 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Writers’ souls crushed, hilarity ensues in Rebeck’s Seminar

Seminar 1
The cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s Seminar by Theresa Rebeck includes (from left) James Wagner as Martin, Patrick Russell as Douglas, Lauren English as Kate, Charles Shaw Robinson as Leonard and Natalie Mitchell as Izzy. Below: Leonard and Kate surprise Martin (and themselves). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The ego, the insecurity and the courage of fiction writers are all on hilarious and intriguing display in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, a one-act comedy that derives laughter from pain and theatrical pleasure from whiplash-smart word play.

The premise is simple: four New York writers have paid $5,000 each for 10 weekly classes with a famous writer. They meet in the beautiful (and rent controlled) apartment of one classmate and wait anxiously for the globe-trotting famous guy, who can’t really be bothered to remember their names, to pass judgement on their work.

Anyone who has ever written anything will feel the body blows as Leonard (Charles Shaw Robinson), the teacher, rips the writers to shreds. But the great thing about Rebeck’s play is that while she’s focusing on writers, a particularly intense and vulnerable artistic breed, the cruelty inflicted by someone with power on those without is immediately recognizable and relatable. That’s why the play is so damn funny.

Director Amy Glazer, who directed Rebeck’s The Scene for SF Playhouse (as well as that play’s subsequent film adaptation, Seducing Charlie Barker), knows exactly what to do here to achieve heightened realism. Her pacing is sharp, and her cast is superb. The actors’ ability to handle the comedy and then make it all devastatingly real is pitch perfect.

Seminar 2

Take Lauren English’s Kate for instance. She’s been laboring on the same story for years, and when Leonard has especially unkind things to say about it, she is devastated and turns to ice cream and potato chips for solace. Kate could turn into something from a “Cathy” cartoon strip, but the character is more interesting than that, and English finds all the heart and intelligence and occasional ferocity she has to offer.

There are some initially broad stereotypes here among the writers – Natalie Mitchell as the sex-forward Izzy, Patrick Russell as the puffed-up literary scion Douglas, James Wagner as Martin, a frightened, nearly defeated everyman – but they all emerge with more complexity as the play evolves. Even Leonard, so believably inhabited by Robinson, is more than just ostentatious cruelty. There’s a damaged, serious artist here, and we get glimpses of him from time to time.

In the end, Rebeck narrows her focus down to two characters – not the two who interested me most – and her ending seeks redemption that feels hollow. But with performances this good and a production this solid, the ending is a minor glitch. What comes before is a funny, incisive Seminar that is well worth taking.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Theresa Rebeck for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar runs through June 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Wonky tone buries Magic’s Buried Child

Buried Child 1
Vince (Patrick Alparone, standing) comes to terms with his family legacy and with Dodge, his grandfather (Rod Gnapp), in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Below: Tilden (James Wagner) shucks some corn, much to the consternation of his father, Dodge. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

By all rights, the Magic Theatre’s season-opening production of Buried Child by Sam Shepard, the man who helped build the Magic’s national reputation during his 12-year stay from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s, should be a triumph. Continuing the five-year Sheparding America celebration of the writer’s work, the production should be a potent reminder of just how electrifying, unsettling and beautiful Shepard’s writing can be.

This is not that production.

Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, struggles establishing the tone from the very start, and though some of the performances, most notably by Rod Gnapp and James Wagner, connect powerfully with the world of the play, much of the cast seems adrift in Shepard’s world, which is somewhere between reality and fantasy, truth and illusion.

Gnapp plays Dodge, the patriarch of an Illinois farm family that has seen better, more prosperous (and more sane) days. Dodge is relegated to a dingy couch, where he further damages his straining lungs with cigarettes and dulls the pain with whiskey hidden under the cushions. Gnapp plays grizzled and grumpy better than just about anybody, and he masterfully conveys humor and menace in ways that allow him to live in the naturalism of Shepard’s play and its lyricism.

Buried Child 2

The same is true of Wagner as Tilden, Dodge’s son who was once a hometown football star but then came into some mysterious trouble in New Mexico and is now a damaged shell. Tilden’s damage somehow connects him to the enigmatic side of Shepard’s play. Every time Tilden heads out into the rainy backyard, he returns with armloads of fresh corn and carrots. Never mind that no one has planted any vegetables back there for 35 years. The only thing they’ve planted, if we can believe the family legend, is an unwanted baby boy.

The surrealism of the play kicks in when Tilden’s grown son (Patrick Alparone making the best of a shallow role) shows up for a surprise visit and no one seems to recognize him, which sends the young man into a tailspin, questioning his very existence. This is where Shepard’s play starts to feel like an inferior version of Pinter’s The Homecoming, especially in this production, where actors tend to pose awkwardly, as if for soap opera cameras, and deliver their lines in stilted cadence. There are scenes that feel almost like Shepard parodies here, which adds nothing to the tone of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which should be as creepy as it is enthralling.

You can feel Shepard leaning into Pinter throughout the play, with definite nods to Albee. But Buried Child, at least in this production, feels dated, confused and underdeveloped.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child continues an extended run through Oct. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Magic Up Against some funny creeps

What We're 1
Pamela Gaye Walker (left) is Janice and Sarah Nealis is Eliza in Theresa Rebeck’s incendiary workplace comedy What We’re Up Against at the Magic Theatre. Below: Rod Gnapp (left) is Ben and James Wagner is Weber. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Playwright Theresa Rebeck, a master of barbed contemporary dialogue, conducts an interesting experiment in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of What We’re Up Against.

Her Petri dish is a big-city architectural firm – all glass and metal in Skip Mercier’s sleek, mostly black, white and gray set. Her chosen bacteria: the architects, all of whom turn out to be antiseptic assholes.

To stir the chemical reactions, Rebeck introduces elements commonly found in the workplace: power plays, raging sexism, vaulting ambition, moronic behavior and that ever-powerful agent, greed.

The architects at this particular firm are mostly isolated from the outside world. We hear about some client interaction, but the focus of their activity is internal. There’s not talk of spouses, significant others, children, parents, pets, groceries or dry cleaning. This nearly two-hour, two-act drama (with some hearty if stinging comedy) has a sharp focus and that is unpleasant behavior from unpleasant people.

“This is no one’s finest or most shining hour,” one architect says toward the end, and that’s so true. But it’s fascinating to watch people being ruthless in everyday, creepily corporate ways.

From the first scene, between Warren David Keith as Stu, a boozy senior architect and Rod Gnapp as Ben, a less senior but vitally important architect, we get hammered by Rebeck’s sharp dialogue.

What We're 2

You can hear Mamet-like rhythms in the chatter – as when speakers interrupt themselves mid-sentence – but Rebeck’s dialogue is more engaging, less slick. Stu, who is enormously threatened by women in the workplace, talks a lot about his balls (especially about them being cut off) and about systems and rules. Both men say things like “What I’m saying” or “I’m telling you” or “Listen!” They desperately want to be heard (and acknowledged or, better yet, praised) but say the same thing over and over.

There’s discord at the firm because a hotshot young architect, Eliza (Sarah Nealis) is going against the corporate grain and not keeping her mouth shut. It’s not that she doesn’t have enough to do –she doesn’t have anything to do. With too much time on her hands and her abundant talent going untapped, she stirs up trouble.

The other woman in the firm, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker), makes a feeble attempt to comfort the distraught younger woman, but she makes abundantly clear that just because they’re both women, they are not allies.

The one sort of superfluous character here is Weber (James Wagner), a golden boy who’s been at the firm a shorter time than Eliza. He talks a good game, like when discussing strip malls: “The human heart meets the void in these places and shops anyway.” And he can keep up with the scotch-swilling other boys, but he’s a dolt. “History is a fiction,” he says. “But it’s a sustainable fiction.” He serves his purpose in the plot, then he disappears.

Director Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, keeps the pace swift and the action intensely focused. She gets a superb performance from Nealis as the complex Eliza, who, you get the impression, would behave less horrifically if she were given the respect she deserves.

The amazing Gnapp goes on a verbal rampage in Act 2 about something central to the plot – air ducts in a mall remodel – and almost chokes himself on his words before observing, “It’s a relentless metaphor for why we can’t breathe.”

It’s interesting that the sexual element of the male-female dynamic in this workplace is barely addressed – perhaps that’s because Rebeck’s experiment is too focused. Sex is messy and real, and these people, in their slickly casual but expertly fitted clothing (by Alex Jaeger) are removed from the reality outside Rebeck’s microscopic lens.

This laboratory yields compelling results, but the experiment seems unfinished. The play ends, but the bad cells, you can feel, just keep multiplying.

Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against continues through March 6 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $44-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Guest critic Leslie Ribovich reviews `Busy World’

As a critic at the Oakland Tribune and its sister newspapers, one of my greatest pleasures was instituting a teen theater critic internship, and it was my luck to launch the program with Leslie Ribovich, who was then a senior at Albany High School. For much of her final year in high school, she would accompany me to shows and write her own reviews, which than ran in the newspaper or online (or both).

Well, Leslie has finished her freshman year at a prestigious New York college, and while she’s home this summer, I asked and she graciously accepted my offer to be a Theater Dogs guest critic. It is my pleasure to present her work. (For my review of the show, click here.) She remains an astute observer and a wonderful writer.

Aurora’s Busy World Provokes Thought of Biblical Proportions

By Leslie Ribovich

You could label The Busy World is Hushed, currently at Aurora Theatre Company, as a political play with a strong message about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with homosexuality, but the designation would be misleading. Yes, the characters grapple with God and predestination, and yes, two of them are homosexual, in a church no less, but playwright Keith Bunin presents the issues far too complexly to take sides.

In a political play, you look for the point of view. In this play, it’s fragmented. We see three different points of view and wonder with whom the playwright agrees.

Is it Hannah (Anne Darragh) who has the first and last line of the play (often an indicator of point of view)? Hannah is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor who is amazed by the idea that an infant could be the most powerful being, but also refers to “doe-faced Jesus-freaks from the Midwest.”

Or Brandt (Chad Deverman), an excellent writer with a dying father who is unqualified for the job of synthesizing Hannah’s research on an unearthed gospel into writing?

What about Thomas (an incredibly charismatic James Wagner), Hannah’s son named for the apostle, who heard gospels instead of bedtime stories and believes his mother is, “fully informed and yet swallows her own Kool Aid”?

What if all three of them say things that make a lot of sense? And then say things that we couldn’t disagree with more?

We don’t walk away from this play knowing what political stance the playwright is taking. That makes good political theatre because these issues aren’t black and white. Religious affiliation and belief in God address a fundamental part of human existence. The play thrives in sticky territory that must be dealt with gracefully and honestly, which Bunin and director Robin Stanton do.

Without a political or religious agenda laid out for us, the audience must think about the issues. And what’s theatre good for if it doesn’t make you think at least a little?

Bunin’s play is also satisfying dramatically. Hannah hires Brandt despite his inadequacies, (a move that more scatter-brained professor types could benefit from following). His religious views are in flux: the Bible was the first piece of writing that he “truly and consciously loved” and yet he questions whether religion is a desperate attempt to make death more bearable. He tells Hannah upfront that as a gay man, he feels at best queasy when faced with the church’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Thomas enters the scene covered in animal blood and “dried crap” immediately after Hannah explains that she despises stained glass because it epitomizes the self-important nonsense of Christianity and makes a mockery of motherhood (one of Bunin’s many clever juxtapositions). Thomas is happy when he notices Brandt “looking his way.”

So we’ve got two characters hard at work on Hannah’s book and the mysterious history therein; a romantic relationship with too many psychological and practical barriers to produce anything less than one big fight; and a mother/ son relationship with expectations of biblical proportions.

The heat is raised on the drama in certain scenes, even visually at the end of Act 1 when light designer Kurt Landisman goes for a Godlike, transcendent quality. The effect highlights the production’s melodramatic elements more than creates a religious metaphor, but it certainly excites you for Act 2.

The set has elegant stained glass windows for Hannah to deconstruct, boxes of Thomas’ deceased father’s things, and enough piles of books that when Brandt comments, how innovative to have a library without shelves, we laugh.

A large window overlooks a slightly out-of-focus, black-and-white photograph of New York’s upper west side. Set designer Eric E. Sinkkonen’s choice might indicate that the discussions in the playing space are timeless; they are somewhat removed from the outside world. The text takes a while to identify where they are geographically, and we might in fact like to know less about the city outside the church. When Bunin mentions “The Strand” and “NYU,” we wonder if the characters aren’t believable enough to live in the more ambiguous, slightly out-of-focus world that Sinkkonen creates.

This is political theater where the specific represents the big picture, or at least gets us wondering about it. After all, the big picture is nothing if we don’t understand how it affects people we know or can relate to. In The Busy World is Hushed, we do.

The actors are all fabulous – they’ve figured out the emotional nuances of their characters to a tee. I must say: after a year in New York, Bay Area theatre still tops my list. Even a show like this that shouldn’t necessarily be the-best-thing-I’ve-seen-all-year, feels so much more organic than anything I saw in New York. Kudos to the Aurora for creating risky, thought-provoking theatre.

For information about The Busy World is Hushed visit


Review: `The Busy World Is Hushed’

Opened June 19, 2008 at the Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley


Anne Darragh (left) is an Episcopalian minister and Chad Deverman is her writing assistant in Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. Photos by David Allen


Thoughts on faith, love, family make noise in Hushed
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Aurora Theatre Company concludes its 16th season with a thoughtful love story/dysfunctional family drama cloaked in theological robes.

Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed has its soapy, melodramatic moments, but there’s much more to the play – musings on gays, God, getting lost and being found — that satisfies both intellectually and emotionally.

There aren’t that many plays around that address the notion of faith from both an organized religion standpoint and from a less structured spiritual place. Bunin’s play opens the conversation without preaching too hard or making anyone look foolish. That in itself makes the play worth seeing.

In addition to an intelligent discussion of God’s place in our modern lives, Busy World throws in a tortured mother-son relationship, a love story between two mid-20s men and a crisis of faith for a son slowly losing his father to a terminal illness. That’s a lot to stuff into two hours, but Bunin manages it, and director Robin Stanton (who did such wonderful work on the Aurora’s Permanent Collection) lends it a naturalism infused with realistic rhythms that pull the audience into the fraught conversations.

How appropriate that this tale is told simply – one set (by Eric E. Sinkkonen, complete with stained-glass windows above, and a regular window looking out onto a cold, gray New York) and a trinity of characters in various stages of belief.

Hannah (Anne Darragh) is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor. She is a great believer in God – not the God depicted in stained-glass windows or trumped up Catholic mythology but the human Jesus who spoke and taught and performed miracles. She’s liberal in her beliefs but strict in her faith. She’s in the process of decoding a newly discovered gospel that could turn out to predate the existing gospels in the Bible, and if genuine, could be the closest thing to the true words of Christ.

To help her write the book on the gospels, she has hired an aspiring author, Brandt (Chad Deverman), whose own writing is blocked and needs a project to help him concentrate. Brandt’s father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his belief in anything is severely shaken. “All religion,” Brandt says, “is an attempt to make death more bearable.”

And then there’s Hannah’s 26-year-old son, Thomas (James Wagner), who doesn’t believe in anything beyond running away. He has just returned from “getting lost,” a game he plays where he throws himself into someplace wild with few provisions then challenges himself to make it out alive. Damaged by his father’s death (and possible suicide) before he was even born, Thomas resents his mother’s immersion in faith and the fact that her relationship with Jesus is often stronger than her relationship with him.

Stanton’s actors are excellent, and this is one of those plays that benefits tremendously from the Aurora’s intimacy. There’s no escaping the passion of Thomas and Brandt’s budding romance just as there’s no turning away from the final confrontation between mother and son, with God, hypocrisy and loneliness wafting through the chasm between them. Bunin comes down hard on Hannah and Thomas, and their rift, full of harsh accusations and hard truths, is truly painful.

There’s not a lot of peace or resolution in this Busy World, which is best, but there’s a lot of common sense and even insight into the complexities of faith and the complexities of living outside faith. Hearts and souls are tangled and torn, God is abused and praised. And the audience is left in a state of contemplation.

The Busy World Is Hushed continues through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

The play’s title, by the way comes from the following benediction:

May the Lord support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us
a safe lodging
and a holy rest,
and peace at last.