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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 2, 2024

Gabby Beans and Hagan Oliveras
Photo by Joan Marcus
The first thing about Jonah: It's not much about Jonah. He's a character, to be sure, an endearing one, embodied by Hagan Oliveras with goofy Jesse Eisenberg charm. But Jonah is mostly about Ana. You wonder why Rachel Bonds didn't just call it Ana.

Ana, as portrayed by Gabby Beans with admirable detail and range of feeling, is a smart college student with a variety of male admirers. Jonah's the first one we encounter, a timid, virginal undergrad who follows Ana around because he just likes her, that's all. As their courtship progresses, Jonah plays like a romcom–redolent, even, of young-love stage comedies from decades long past, like Junior Miss or Bernardine.

Bonds' dialogue has an authentic present-day ring, though, and much of what's fine about her play is how it captures concerns that are both contemporary and eternal. Jonah, on believing in God: "Sometimes I think I do, I mean I want to, and then ... Then I think it's all really silly shit we made up so we wouldn't be afraid and honestly, really, there's probably just black nothingness after we die." But then, as we're becoming accustomed to the romcom rhythms and mostly light, appealing back-and-forth between Ana and Jonah, Bonds goes deeper. A lot deeper.

What's happened up through the whole Ana-Jonah thing, we can probably assume, actually happened. Much of the rest of Jonah is taking place in Ana's head. Or not. She has a complicated, fraught past, and most of the subsequent scenes are Ana trying to make sense of what's happened to her and how she's going to process her way forward into a productive, less agonizing adulthood. The program says Jonah is set in "a series of bedrooms," and the time is "the past and the present. But everything is slippery." And how! We're never sure exactly when or where we are, or how literally to take any of it.

About those bedrooms. Wilson Chin's set design is quite luxurious for what's most often a college dorm, graceful long curtains and loads of space, and once again we have to wonder if its physical manifestation is a product of Ana's very active imagination. Her mind never rests. She's haunted by the loss of her mother, who remarried, disastrously, an abusive alcoholic who inflicted physical damage on Danny (Samuel H. Levine), his son from a prior marriage, and psychological damage on Ana. Now, or whenever it is in this time-scrambled universe, Danny and Ana have an unsettling, handsy relationship, and Danny's subsequent self-destructiveness induces further scars and guilt for Ana. Levine plays Danny with maybe more anger than Danny would really have, but we get that he's the bitter, borderline-violent product of a dysfunctional household, and we're not surprised when he goes off the deep end, or when Ana suffers trying to analyze their relationship dynamics.

Other guys are flitting around her, too. There's Steven (John Zdrojeski), the likable, considerate geek who's in her writing workshop, and who loves her book. That's another thing we learn about Ana way later than we'd expect: She's a published author with a devoted fan base at what's probably a tender age, though it's hard to tell, what with that slippery Bonds past and present. (The workshop is taking place in what Steven calls a "remote farmhouse-y artist place," and again, Chin's set feels all wrong.) Steven doesn't affect the narrative much, but as engagingly played by Zdrojeski, he's a pleasure to have around amid all the navel-gazing and gut-wrenching. You want Ana to end up with him. Or Jonah. Not Danny.

For Ana spends a lot of time having romantic problems, and creativity problems, and unable-to-reconcile-her-troubled-past problems. Bonds dramatizes these in ways that can be confusing. Some scenes end with repeated flashes (the lighting is by Amith Chandrashaker) and repetitions of that scene's last beat, signifying ... Ana's inability to cope with the memory? Her reprocessing of that memory into a more comforting dreamscape? Sometimes you just wish playwrights would be less tricky. Danya Taymor's direction, otherwise speedy and adept at bringing out submerged feelings that aren't in the dialogue, does nothing to clear up the mystery.

Religion's in there, too–Ana's and Steven's and Jonah's respective relationships to God–and we learn at the last minute that Ana also has two sisters, whom we otherwise know nothing about–why did Bonds bother? The ideas in Jonah keep rushing out, sometimes hard to track, and I leave it to you to determine how much of it is real and how much is in Ana's fertile brain; maybe some of it, like the last scene, with Ana interacting with both Jonah and Steven, is both. What's certain in this baffling but thought-provoking play is, Ana is processing her way out of a dire past and into a better future. And Gabby Beans is acting the heck out of it.

Through March 10, 2024
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street just west of Sixth Avenue, New York NY
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