The characters in Jonah are constantly checking in with each other, whether out of concern or to grant or request consent. “Okay? Are you okay?” says the fumbling, sweetly horny teenager Jonah (Hagan Oliveras) as he shares a kiss with his boarding-school classmate Ana (Gabby Beans). “I’m okay,” she affirms. “Okay,” he replies. Such exchanges recur with pointed regularity throughout the script: The word okay (sometimes shortened to ’kay) is spoken 158 times in Rachel Bonds’s 100-minute play.
But Ana is not okay. Yes, she seems fine—unusually self-possessed, even—in the play’s first scenes, which are devoted to her funny and adorable courtship with Jonah: a hopelessly self-conscious manic pixie dreamboy with curly hair and a smooth, leanly muscled body. She’s the one who takes the sexual initiative in their flirtation, flashing her bra at the end of their first encounter. (“I don’t have to do anything. I do what I want,” she later explains.) When she shares her romantic fantasies with him, she spins them with an animation that prefigures her future as a writer.
At around the half-hour mark, though, their connection goes haywire. The action shifts from school to Ana’s home, where she lives under the tyranny of an alcoholic stepfather. This Ana is more passive; she serves as a support system for her abused stepbrother Danny—played touchingly and scarily by Samuel H. Levine, of The Inheritance—with whom she shares a fraught relationship. (His wounded rage and her guarded shame make this section an interesting companion to John Patrick Shanley’s recently revived Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.) By the time she meets the gawky and inquisitive Steven (Heroes of the Fourth Turning’s John Zdrojeski) at a writer’s retreat years later, her defenses are fully up. When he asks if she’s okay, she bristles: “You have to stop asking me that—I’m not some weakass flower.”
All of this is less straightforward than it may seem. Bonds interweaves Ana’s three narratives skillfully, letting the audience piece together what’s happening (and what has happened) as Jonah jumps from one to another, exploring themes of desire, vulnerability and trauma. That’s a big part of what keeps us engaged, so it’s a slight disappointment when the play’s denouement tips into overexplanation. But director Danya Taymor, in her visually spare world-premiere production at the Roundabout, elicits compelling performances from all four actors. The men are believably devoted in very different registers, and Beans—who earned a Tony nomination for her biting Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth—delivers another charismatic and varied star turn. Even when the play is just okay, she shines.
Leaving the theater where the new play “Jonah” had just performed, a couple behind me barely waited for the curtain to come down to start talking about what they’d just seen.
Gabby Beans stays onstage throughout Jonah, a well-composed new play by Rachel Bonds, that tracks the development of her character’s imagination and reality from high school through sometime in her 30s. An actor of great magnetism, her skills are called upon to portray Ana, who we meet as an imaginative teen tiptoeing into a situationship with the adorable Jonah (Hagan Oliveras), a day student at the preppy boarding school they attend.
Those seeds of creativity lead to a successful writing career, as we learn when we see her somewhat entertaining the fanboy advances of Steven (John Zdrojeski) at a tucked-away retreat years later. Their blossoming, however, had to stumble through a turbulent relationship with her step brother Danny (Samuel H. Levine) throughout her college years. Ana’s inner and outer worlds collapse and refract as Bonds throws into question the roles of desire, imagination, and personal survival narratives.
Beans, as always, is a pleasure to watch, crafting an unfussy performance that allows for moments of levity and humor as well as deeply embodied pathos. Her character’s rush towards an emotional spike is less a performance flaw than a curious gap in the play’s otherwise tightly constructed machinations.
Danya Taymor’s direction keeps everything neatly on track, and Wilson Chin presents another creatively efficient set in Ana’s sparse, make-what-you-will bedroom. Fine acting, with Beans as its strong core, make Jonah a worthy look at the stories we tell ourselves.