By: Samuel L. Leiter
February 2, 2024: An enthusiastic response greeted the end of Jonah, Rachel Bonds’s intriguing, if determinedly ambiguous dramedy – receiving its world premiere at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre – when I attended; however, as the audience moved up the aisle to leave, I overheard more than one playgoer ask their partner something along the lines of, “What did we just see?” Good question.
The intermissionless, 100-minute play, something of a coming of age rom-com soaked in emotional turmoil, takes place—except for the opening where the characters are presumed to be outdoors—in multiple bedrooms, all represented by the same unvaryingly dull, beige, Wilson Chin set. A door at center is flanked by unseen walls covered by plain curtains, with a bed at our left, and a desk at our right. As the heroine, Ana (Gabby Beans, The Skin of Our Teeth), ages from 16 to her late 30s, it serves as her boarding school dorm room, her Detroit suburb bedroom, her Michigan college dorm room, and her room at a woodsy writer’s retreat. More than any of these, though, it looks like a nondescript motel room.
Over the course of 15 scenes, stingingly directed by Danya Taymor, we watch Ana interact with three male characters, the awkward, naïve, sexually inexperienced, 17-year-old Jonah (Hagan Oliveras), Ana’s boarding school classmate, still grieving his mother’s death; Ana’s screwed-up, sometimes threatening, stepbrother, Danny (Samuel H. Levine), seen from 17 to his late 30s, unhealthily obsessed with her; and a polite, sweet-natured, Mormon-raised journalist named Steven (John Zdrojeski), around 40, whom Ana, now a respected writer, meets at a retreat. Kaye Voyce’s quotidian costumes, which barely change through the years, are well suited to the actors in this first-rate ensemble.
Writing about this play is difficult without a few spoilers, so readers are hereby alerted. Ana is the victim of serious childhood trauma: loss of her mother when she was 14, an abusive stepfather, and two difficult stepbrothers. Like her two sisters, of whom we hear, the younger stepbrother is never seen, although we learn a tad bit more about him than we do of them. Structured nonlinearly, Jonah reveals Ana’s search for happiness and sexual fulfillment through her relationships with the men I’ve noted. In the early scenes, filled with the humor of teenagers preoccupied with sex, she and the bashful, yet insistent Jonah, who piqued her interest, discuss their masturbation turn-ons (in a conversation, however titillating, that seems highly unlikely for two insecure virgins).
The sex-obsessed Jonah confesses how easily he can be aroused by even the vaguest image, like a desk corner that reminds him of a nipple, or moderately improper behavior, like touching a girl’s butt. Ana, possessor of a vivid imagination, and the more “experienced” of the two, requires an emotional connection, which inspires her to concoct elaborate, romantic fantasies, several of which she describes in detail. These scenes, representing Ana’s way of confronting her problems through storytelling, provide hints for interpreting much of what is going to transpire.
This setup for the mingling of different realities provides the theatrical premise; as the scenes progress, we’re forced to wonder if what we’re watching at any moment is truth or fantasy. (It’s not mentioned in the script, but perhaps Queen’s “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” will worm itself into your head.) The imaginary scenes, which seem believably realistic on the surface, and include the males suffering some physical discomfort that needs Ana’s attention, conclude with the guy sucked out of the upstage door into the darkness as Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting, aided by the illusions of Morgan Auld, plays weird tricks accompanied by Kaye Marvin’s equally strange musical effects. (Given the way people disappear, the use of a Dust Buster late in the play could be read as an inside joke.)
For all the emphasis on Jonah in the first few scenes, where he and Ana grow increasingly intimate, he gets swallowed by that door about one third through, only to return in a dream scene years later. Once he mysteriously vanishes, things grow ever odder. Danny, Ana’s potentially dangerous stepbrother, whose father calls him a “fuckin’ retard,” replaces Jonah. His presence moves into incestuous waters that end Ana’s virginity (intimacy coordinator Ann James helps gets the job done). At the same time, given the playwright’s leaving open a few narrative wormholes, you can be forgiven for thinking that maybe some degree of fiction is threaded through even the realistic scenes.
Next up, years later, we meet the considerate Steven, infatuated with Ana after having been bowled over by her recent book, about which we’re told barely anything, not even if it’s fiction or nonfiction. And given the physical issues that always seem present for the men in the fantasy scenes, we wonder whether his bug-bitten legs signal that he too will be swallowed by oblivion. Anyway, before Steven’s ministrations help Ana to resolve her relationship issues, her bad penny stepbrother returns (or does he?), one of his hands busted up.
Super-inquisitive, Steven questions the reluctant Ana on personal matters, during which a lot of repressed exposition pours out concerning how she left her abusive household. She counters with questions for Steven, unearthing a discourse on the harmfulness of Mormon sex-related confession practices; he, too, has been sexually wounded, perhaps, opening the door for Ana’s commiseration. But mostly, the scene serves as therapy for Ana, provoking the aforesaid reunion with Jonah, which is clearly contrived to explain—even if you don’t buy it—why Jonah has not been in her life all these years.
Steven’s last question suddenly brings religious faith into the already boiling over cauldron of emotional dysfunction. That question passionately answered, the play moves toward its conclusion during which we watch as Ana and Steven resolve, for the moment, at any rate, Queen’s query: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
Jonah’s title will elicit various opinions on its appropriateness, given that Jonah is a supporting character and there are no whales around. The play succeeds best at providing its cast with colorful, naturalistic dialogue to speak, and dramatically quirky characters to portray. Gabby Beans, onstage throughout and required to play Ana over a period of two decades with barely any obvious physical alterations, is funny, tragic (lots of tears), wise, sarcastic, angry, fearful, and sensual as required; she is always convincing.
Jonah, which will likely get multiple regional performances, holds the attention, but it’s simply too gimmicky and cerebrally challenging for complete emotional appreciation. If you don’t pay close attention, you can easily get lost in the belly of this beast.
Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through March 10, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus