Onstage with Will Eno - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Onstage with Will Eno

Onstage with Will Eno

By Will Humphries


Because if Broadway is taking him seriously, so should you. 

By Will Humphries

It’s not every day a promising playwright joins the ranks of David Mamet, Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, but Will Eno is just about to do so with his ticket to Broadway firmly in hand.

Tall, thin and jeans-clad, Eno is the slightly disheveled everyman whose plays have been intriguing off-Broadway audiences for a decade, and he is now poised to step onto the Great White Way, when his new work, The Realistic Joneses, debuts next month. (The play is already in previews.) 

Imagine ’Arrested Development’ served up by Jean-Paul Sartre and you’ve got the idea.

Although Eno lives and works in Brooklyn, his early years were spent in small towns in Massachusetts. This collision of small-town life and the anonymity of the big city seems to reside at the heart of Eno’s plays. “I tend to be more toward the solitary end of the spectrum,” he says. His love of theater, he adds, “was probably born out of loneliness.”

That feeling of isolation bleeds into his work, where characters search for human connections and meaning despite a pervading sense of detachment and solitude.

It was Eno’s search for meaning that compelled him to drop out of college after three and a half years at UMass-Amherst. He moved to New York, where he was invited to join a creative writing class run by Gordon Lish, a pivotal step that helped launch Eno’s writing career. Lish, a writer and literary editor, speaks highly of his former pupil and his “remarkable ability to see the world in anguished terms that apply.” 

Eno’s first play, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), premiered to acclaim in New York in 2005 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, prompting New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood to hail the young playwright as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” Thom Pain is a startling blend of existentialism and disorientating lyricism delivered in a monologue that shifts rapidly between a bleak portrait of a life and its inherent absurdities. Imagine Arrested Development served up by Jean-Paul Sartre and you’ve got the idea.

One of the finest younger playwrights I have come across in a number of years…

– Edward Albee

Eno’s Broadway debutThe Realistic Jonesesopening at the Lyceum Theatre this spring, is about two couples who share the same name. The playwright is also showcasing The Open House, a play dealing with the tensions and commitments of family life, at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre. 

Besides the growing interest in Eno’s work, there is little doubt that audiences will flock to The Realistic Joneses to see television and film star Michael C. Hall take the stage, along with co-stars Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei.

But Eno’s arrival on Broadway is not the result of marquee-name actors. And his plays don’t rely on dazzling special effects — or even much of a plot. Instead they are alchemical combininations of language and story that allow the scenes to transcend the ordinary while staying firmly rooted in the familiar. Daring to poke fun at horrible human truths with an almost playful, razor-sharp wit, they yield raw and unflinching portraits of the human condition.

Group shot of characters from the show The Realistic Jones

Cast and crew members of The Realistic Joneses

Source Getty

Eno’s winking humor and fast-paced banter can at times deflect from his primary interest in engaging in an intelligent meditation on daily life. The playwright believes we spend too much time focused on the beginning and end of life and not enough time on the stuff that really matters: everything in between. “By definition, all of our lives take place in the middle of those two sort of unknowable events, in this great and often unexamined middle,” Eno said.

His plays, in turn, demand that we examine these often mundane middles — and make the most of them. 

A former cyclist who trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and won a silver medal in the national championships, Eno has said that his commitment to cycling postponed his having to figure out what he really wanted from life. His cycling career may be behind him, but Eno’s competitive side still bubbles to the surface, and he’s known for using athletic contests to cement friendships. Oliver Butler, the director of The Open House, mentioned games of catch during rehearsal breaks, and Sam Gold, director of The Realistic Joneses, regularly meets Eno for a prerehearsal squash game. These games can even become tinged with Eno’s hallmark absurdism. Longtime friend Joe Sola said he and Eno devised a swimming pool game called English Bobbie, for example, that’s long, complicated and “has no end or no winner — you just play until you’re too tired.”

Color headshot of Albee in denim shirt, leather jacket and black tie

Edward Albee

Eno’s work has attracted high-profile admirers, including octogenarian American playwright Edward Albee, best known for his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. Albee has referred to Eno as “one of the finest younger playwrights I have come across in a number of years,” describing his style as inventive and evocative. He applauds Eno’s examinations of common life: “What could be worse than getting to the end your life and figuring out you haven’t participated in it?” Albee asked.

But not everyone is equally taken by Eno, and some think his fast-paced banter can obscure meaning, robbing audiences of a takeaway message. 

One critic described his 2010 play, Middletown, which won the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, as “earthbound,” suggesting it offered little for the imagination. But Eno’s commitment to portraying life as he sees it, forgoing attempts at otherworldliness in favor of conveying a kind of absurd realism, is steadfast — so much so that he is prone to poke fun at the critiques. 

“Everything I’ve ever written takes place on Earth,” he quips, before more seriously addressing his desire to create a world onstage that audiences can relate to. “Nobody can fly or go back in time or do much that doesn’t obey the laws we all have to obey.” 

John Lahr, reviewing Title and Deed for the New Yorker, said Eno’s story, while brilliant in its telling, was “all quandary and no conclusions.” It’s true that Eno fails to deliver a clear message, but he is not interested in dictating what audiences should think, choosing instead “to guide the flow of thoughts,” he says.

You don’t usually get to perfect a moment in real life.

– Will Eno

For Eno, the role of theater is to reflect real life, offering audiences the chance at redemption.

“You don’t usually get to perfect a moment in real life,” he says, but through drama we have the opportunity to play out scenarios that might yield solutions to “a real-life version of that same moment.” 

Some theatergoers will leave Eno’s plays wanting to know what the message was, but that misses the point. Instead of delivering neatly packaged ideas, Eno asks that we acknowledge the fictions in everyday life and join him in trying to pierce through to a more truthful reality beyond.

Whether Eno ultimately earns a place in the pantheon of great modern playwrights is up to him, and his pen. Whether we find meaning — and ourselves — in his plays and their lofty aspirations to make us better people, however, is entirely up to us.


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