Sometimes you just don’t get a show. Maybe its subject triggers you or fails to grab you at all. Maybe the playwright was trying to do too much or the director didn’t do enough. Or maybe you were grumpy because getting to the theater was such a hassle or you were tired because it had been a long week. I’m not sure what the reason is but I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t get Jonah, the new play that opened at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre this week.
I got enough to understand that the show centers around a young woman named Ana and her interactions with three men over the course of several years in her life. But this is not an easy play in any sense of the word. Playwright Rachel Bonds clearly wants to explore the different mechanisms people use to cope with trauma. So there are lots of references to domestic violence and self-harm.
And because the narrative shifts back and forth in time, it’s not easy to follow what’s going on either. The male characters keep popping up out of nowhere and falling (sometimes literally) right back into nothingness. The promotional materials try to make a virtue of all of this: “Jonah is not all he seems,” said the press release referring to one of Ana’s three men. The Playbill advises that the action takes place in “The past and the present. But everything is slippery.”
Too slippery for me. The play opens with a teenage Ana at a New England boarding school, where she says her mother sent her. But at another point she says that her mother died when she was 11. We're apparently supposed to figure out what's true but after awhile the intentional elusiveness of such an unreliable narrator can become unintentionally alienating.
The lighting and sound designs work hard to clarify the transitions from one reality to another but the set, which is supposed to stand in for three separate locations, seems to have just given up: too large and too anonymous for a boarding school dorm room, a suburban home bedroom or the studio space at the writers' retreat where the adult Ana has taken refuge to work on a book.
But the thing that put me off most was the casting. Now all four of the actors are fantastic. Hagan Oliveras exudes puppyish charm as Ana’s high school crush, the titular Jonah. Samuel H. Levine is brooding but charismatic as her emotionally-damaged stepbrother Danny. And John Zdrojeski brings a sweet goofiness to the role of Steven, Ana’s neighbor at the writers’ retreat.
Ana is played by Gaby Beans, who carries the heaviest load—never leaving the stage during the show’s 100 or so minutes—and she does it with an unflashy finesse. But Beans is Black and that fact is never acknowledged in this production. Which left me confused. All three of the guys are obsessed with Ana. Is that because she’s Black? Or is Beans, proudly sporting long micro-braids, supposed to be playing a white woman?
There are a few lines that allude to race (“What do you mean, you people,” Ana asks one of the men) but those occasional references are just asides. In a play like this one that pivots around sexual and family tensions, race would surely matter. And if Bonds and director Danya Taymor insist on believing that it doesn’t, why have they cast all the guys with white-presenting actors?
Bonds writes both funny and intense dialog. I can imagine drama students doing monologues and dialogs from Jonah for years to come. And I respect her desire not to spoon feed her audience but it's not pandering to suggest which spoon might be most useful for them. If she wants us to go through the pain, then in return shouldn't we get at least the possibility of relief?
Someone at Roundabout seems to have a thing for these kinds of trauma dramas. Last spring, the Laura Pels played host to Primary Trust, another play in which a trauma survivor depends on protective fantasy. But that show offered a satisfying, if incomplete, resolution (click here to listen to an interview I did with its author).
Jonah doesn’t even try to offer hope or even to make its intentions clear. Which left me unsatisfied. But that apparently is just me. Most critics seem quite taken with Jonah (click here to read some of those reviews) and the New York Times has made the show a Critic’s Pick. So I guess you’ll just have to go see this one and make up your own mind.