'Jonah' review — blurring the lines between fantasy and reality

Read our four-star review of Jonah off Broadway, a world-premiere play written by Rachel Bonds and directed by Danya Taymor for Roundabout Theatre Company.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Can a play be fully engaging and elusive at the same time? Meet Jonah, the Off-Broadway play by Rachel Bonds that’s built to discombobulate us. A program note signals as much: Events take place in “the past and the present. But everything is slippery.”

Okay, that’s not so helpful. It’s like the vehicular warning that objects in the rearview mirror may be closer than they appear. But in this 100-minute presentation from Roundabout Theatre Company, characters may be more imaginary than they look. So buckle up – and pay attention. You’ll do that anyway, since director Danya Taymor’s fine-tuned cast will keep you glued.

Despite what the title suggests, the story revolves around Detroit-born Ana (Tony Award nominee Gabby Beans in top form). Across various stages of life, she's eventually revealed to be a writer, and she comes into focus through her interactions with three men.

At the start, it’s all about Jonah (Hagan Oliveras), a fellow student at Ana's boarding school. Over candy and small talk that turns significant, they immediately click. Within minutes of meeting him, Ana lifts her blouse and playfully flashes Jonah. A sweet, trusting intimacy between Ana and super-sensitive Jonah blooms.

Then, all of a sudden, the low-key tone of the play gets a jolt, as if everything short-circuits. Lights flash and crackle. Jonah, who’s been pouring out his heart and saying all the right things to Ana, vanishes. What was that about?

Time shifts. We meet Danny (Samuel Henry Levine), who shares a harrowing and unsettling history with Ana. At this point, Ana isn’t flashing anyone, but Bonds is exposing the play's main theme: Ana’s traumas and how she coped.

We learn that Danny is Ana’s stepbrother. When she was 11, her mom married his abusive dad. Following her mother’s death, the violence escalated, and the siblings’ relationship got too close for comfort. “You’re just… really good at calming me down," Danny tells Ana after a turbulent episode.

Danny’s demons eventually take a toll, and his actions deeply impact Ana. She, meanwhile, has no one to ease her physical and emotional aches except herself. Ana escapes into her imagination, an author’s reliable ally.

“I had a whole other fully-lived life in my head,” she tells Steven (John Zdrojeski), as the scene leaps forward in time to a writers’ retreat. Steven, an odd but gentle journalist who loved Ana’s first book, becomes a sort of kindred spirit.

He’s struggled with Mormonism. She’s struggled with God. Both have issues with sex. Is Steven a fantasy, a figment of Ana’s imagination? Can Ana find intimacy in real life that’s as tender as the kind she’s made up? Jonah isn’t about to give firm answers. But in my mind, I rooted for Ana.

Jonah is at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until March 10. Get Jonah tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Gabby Beans and Hagan Oliveras in Jonah. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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