Small Talk in The Realistic Joneses

By Shannon Stockwell

The Realistic Joneses runs until April 3 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. 

Jennifer and Bob Jones sit outside their house, talking to each other. Well, it seems like they’re talking, at least by the modern definition of “talking.” Their mouths are moving and their vocal cords are vibrating and one makes a sound that the other hears, interprets, and responds to. But despite the outward appearance that they are, in fact, talking, Jennifer remains unconvinced. “We’re—I don’t know—sort of throwing words at each other,” she says.

Jennifer Jones (Rebecca Watson) and Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp)
try to have a conversation about Bob's deteriorating health.
Photo by Kevin Berne. 
The characters in The Realistic Joneses throw words at each other for the entire play, and the other party often fails to catch them. Questions are asked and remain unanswered. Words are misinterpreted. Topics are dropped. Stutters and false starts abound. It feels as though, for all their existential dread, these characters can’t pull themselves away from small talk in order to get at the bigger fears that pervade their lives.

What exactly is small talk? The academic term is “phatic communication,” which was coined by sociologist Bronisław Malinowski in 1923. Phatic communication, he explains, is when words are exchanged but no particularly important information is conveyed. For example, you might be compelled to comment to a person standing next to you, “It’s so cold today.” The person likely knows that it is cold. No new information is exchanged. But you say it anyway. Why?

Malinowski says, “To a natural man, another man’s silence is not a reassuring factor, but on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous. . . . The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship. . . . The modern English expression, ‘Nice day to-day’ [is] needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.”

These thoughts were inspiration for Eno as he wrote the play. In an interview with Playbill, he said of The Realistic Joneses, “I wonder, I assume that everyone must have some little moment once in a while where they think what a strange thing this all is, that we have words and there didn’t used to be words and somebody made up all these words and now they’re pouring out of my mouth and I’m telling you what it’s like inside me. And I’m probably not getting close to describing it, but close enough that you can hear it and have some other opinion and respond with how it is inside you.”

“You don’t get what I’m saying,” says John to Bob in The Realistic Joneses. “Not your fault. Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway. It’s all just bodies and light.”

To learn more about small talk in The Realistic Joneses, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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