Is New York theater suffering a housing crisis? How else to explain the glut of this season’s plays (Fun Home, The Open House, A Doll’s House, The Tribute Artist, The Mystery of Pearl Street, Appropriate, The Velocity of Autumn, Between Riverside and Crazy) that center on abodes — getting them, having them, keeping them, leaving them, selling them, blowing them to bits. Home, it seems, is where the art is.
This week, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, dynamically revived at the Barrymore, and Will Eno’s funny, wrenching The Realistic Joneses at the Lyceum suggest that we move from house to house in the hope that real estate can redeem us, save us. We don’t really crave a home mortgage, these plays intimate. What we want is a new lease on life.
Fifty-five years past its premiere, Hansberry’s play remains vital and wise. Set in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side, it fixes on the Younger clan (played ironically by somewhat aged actors) as they struggle toward a better, more generous life, symbolized by the house that matriarch Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) hopes to buy.
Kenny Leon directs in broad strokes, encouraging his cast to telegraph emotion with each gesture and expression. This should oversimplify the play; instead it somehow lends it clarity, particularly when performed by actors as skillful as the staunch Richardson, the spirited Anika Noni Rose, the affecting Sophie Okonedo, and Denzel Washington, who throws himself into the role with reckless grace.
Though the relevance of a few cultural and political references has faded, the play remains somehow urgent, in ways both gratifying and sorrowful. Though the final scene dangles hope like a ring of new cut keys, the preceding ones emphasize the corrosive consequences of having opportunity and reward denied. In these close, dark rooms, as Washington’s Walter says, “there ain’t never as much understanding as folks generally thinks there is.”
It’s a sentiment Will Eno wouldn’t dispute. In The Realistic Joneses, John Jones (Michael C. Hall), an incomer to a little town near the mountains, remarks with some awe, “There’s a lot to not know, isn’t there?” How little we comprehend even familiar rituals and phrases is a notion sustaining all of Eno’s plays. He has a gift for taking the trivia of daily life and making it fresh and strange, as when John describes having glimpsed his neighbor, Jennifer Jones (Toni Collette), some weeks before: “You were on the phone, crying, and eating a PowerBar. I thought, wow, that’s one sad busy person.”
Despite its title, this drama, Eno’s Broadway debut, is not especially realistic, though it is his most conventional and most mournful. Jennifer and her husband, Bob (Tracy Letts), strike up a convoluted friendship with John and his wife, Pony (Marisa Tomei), who have rented a home down the street. As they meet in backyards and kitchens and grocery stores, they talk of nothing and everything, hoping that a new house, a new shower curtain, an exchange of pleasantries, a bevy of free iced tea can somehow stave off mortality. (Spoiler alert: No such luck.)
Director Sam Gold lends his usual precision to the play, and the actors attack the script with acuity and zeal. Tomei seems surprisingly well cast as the childlike Pony and Hall lends John a caustic energy. As he and Pony depart Bob and Jennifer’s patio one night, John calls, “This was fun. I mean, not fun, but, definitely some other word.” How about shattering? How about enthralling? How about true?