Ah, a quiet summer night in a small town near some mountains. Ah, the crickets, the vast dark sky, the faraway hoot of an owl. And the dead squirrel on the deck and the bad smell coming from the fridge.
In "The Realistic Joneses," the world is familiar and, then again, very scary. It's also weird and cruel and profound in all sorts of unexpected places -- as sad as life but a whole lot funnier.
Provocative playwright Will Eno, whose dry and odd work has tended to cause the theatrical equivalent of fistfights Off-Broadway, has come to Broadway with a macabre and melancholy yet strangely delightful comedy. Directed by Sam Gold with expert ominous playfulness, the 95-minute domestic mystery has a terrific quartet of famous actors and a bit more palpable heart than usual. Still, it is a relief to report that Eno's daggers have not been dulled for commercial consumption.
That first evening, the Joneses -- Jennifer (Toni Collette) and husband Bob (Tracy Letts) -- are sitting on their patio. He is detached and sullen, suffering, we soon learn, from a rare degenerative nerve disease. She tries, futilely, to get him to communicate.
Enter the other Joneses -- Pony (Marisa Tomei) and John (Michael C. Hall) -- who just rented a house nearby. They are as gabby and giddy as the older couple is subdued. Pretty Pony is almost annoying in her adorableness, zigzagging subjects and moods on hairpin turns. John -- like the playwright -- enjoys messing with people and with words. The banter feels coy, until, suddenly, it does not.
In a succession of brief scenes, separated by unpredictable blackouts, the Joneses learn they are not as different as they appear. David Zinn's simple yet ingenious set moves the action sideways from the older couple's sliding patio doors to the interior of the interlopers' kitchen, from a chance meeting in a supermarket to a wonderful sight gag about a late-night encounter with a security- system motion detector.
At its most basic, the play can be reduced to a drama about caregivers and the different ways people deal with illness and mortality. But much like work by Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett, Eno's closest forbearers in existential absurdity, there's a challenge in keeping up with these Joneses. As John says, "This was fun -- I mean, not fun, but some other word." Indeed.
WHAT "The Realistic Joneses"
WHERE Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
INFO $39-$135; 212-239-6200, therealisticjoneses.com
BOTTOM LINE Cruel, oddly delightful comedy with a terrific cast