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Three Men and a Lady: “Jonah” reviewed

Though Rachel Bonds’ new play, currently running at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, is called Jonah, the main character is actually a woman named Ana. The show has the potential to be a powerful character study about what it takes just to get through life – especially for a woman. However, one gets the sense that this emerging talent has not put forth her best effort. Jonah displays great potential, but one wonders if the current version is the result of several different ideas crammed together.

We first meet Ana (Gabby Beans of The Skin of Our Teeth) as a teenage boarding school student flirting on campus with Jonah (newcomer Hagan Oliveras). He’s awkward, but unfazed when it comes to getting her attention. Eventually, she reciprocates, even if she can only come up with a slightly embarrassed “Shut up!” (plus an impulsive, fleeting flash). But Ana, we quickly see, has a powerful imagination. She shares with Jonah her movie-trope fantasies of romance, which represents the only kind of fully realized life she knows. After a bit, they bond during verboten late-night hangouts in her dorm room. She learns – as do we – his backstory: he’s a local townie whose mother has passed away and whose father is an alcoholic.

Then, suddenly, Jonah is no longer around. A slightly more mature Ana is now in a different bedroom with Danny (Samuel H. Levine of The Inheritance) pestering her. Who he is, and how both he and Jonah are linked to her, come to the surface as we find an even older Ana in a different bedroom at a writers’ retreat, pursued by another awkward colleague, Steven (John Zdrojeski).

Jonah, one gathers, is primarily about trust after coming through trauma. Bonds wants to examine what it means to be a survivor from the perspective of a woman who refuses to be victimized by her experiences. (The play also includes a complicated sexual that may or may not be deemed consensual – without proper context clues, the playwright leaves that conjecture to the audience.) Ana is very much a character in charge of her story and her vulnerability, which is a refreshing choice.

Yet there are lost opportunities in trying to piece together who Ana is and what the missing holes in her life story represent. Ana is Black but the rest of the cast – the people in her life – all seem to be white, and the racial politics could benefit from further probing. There are similar about class and gender (not to mention abuse) that go similarly unexplored. Additionally, Bonds’ violates a basic show-don’t-tell tenet of playwriting and has Ana answer virtually all initial questions over the course of the play. Literally. Bonds structures her play in such an elementary way – introduce, confound, explain – that when the play should reach a point of catharsis, all we get is a doling out of answers. It nullifies the potential power of what Bonds has created. Also, her decision to disorient the audience suggests that she lacks faith in her own material. The Jonah and the Danny sequences don’t exactly jive – it wouldn’t surprise if they came from different play ideas and Bonds has grafted them together into a full-length piece.

Director Danya Taymor doesn’t do much to otherwise add color to the proceedings, although Wilson Chin’s spare bedroom set and Amith Chandrashaker lighting create a couple of special effects that help define exactly who Jonah might be (Kate Marvin’s sound design heightens the mystery when needed as well). And she gets carefully detailed performances from her quartet of actors. Beans segues between the free-spirited, innocent-acting Ana to the reserved, isolated Ana of later years with great aplomb. We see her go from soft to flinty: (When asked at one point if she is okay, she responds with “You have to stop asking me that –  I’m not some weakass flower.”

Oliveras is charming, and adds notes of palpable tenderness to their scenes. Levine handles a difficult role by showing the wounds beneath his characters’ manipulation. (And he is abetted by sterling work by hair and makeup designer Tommy Kurzman).

The true discovery is Zdrojeski (late of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, and soon to be seen again this season in the musicalized The Great Gatsby), who toes the line between comic relief and sensitivity as the bumbling Steven. Perhaps the most powerful moments come from him ceding his space to Ana and listening to her narrate the story of her life. (He also gets a fruitful monologue about what his own now-lapsed Mormon faith has done to him that could fill an entire play on its own I can’t say Bonds’ play totally succeeds – she doesn’t seem to trust that the audience will understand what she has created. But the connection she established between Ana and Steven show that sometimes all someone needs in life is to be seen and heard.

Jonah
Laura Pels Theatre
www.roundabouttheatre.org