“The present and the past. But everything is slippery.” So reads the time of the play in the program from Jonah, Rachel Bonds’ somewhat confusing but ultimately affecting new work presented by Roundabout Theater Company at its Off-Broadway stage, the Laura Pels. The confusion is prevalent at first. But by the final curtain, all the disparate pieces of Bonds’ scattered plot come together to form a full portrait of the lead character, Ana, a shattered young woman, beautifully played by the intense and versatile Gabby Beans. So why isn’t it called Ana instead of Jonah? An answer would be a spoiler, but I’ll attempt to give you the gist without revealing too much.
The story focuses on Ana at three stages of her life and zig-zags between the different time periods as she copes with a series of romances—either nurturing or damaging. (Wilson Chin designed the single, functional set which serves as the various bedrooms Ana lives in.) We see her discovering young love with the dorky but adorable Jonah (wonderfully awkward Hagan Oliveras) while at boarding school. Then she enters into a co-dependent bond with her emotionally unbalanced step-brother Danny (driven and desperate Samuel H. Levine). Both are trapped in a dangerously dysfunctional household. The third series of vignettes finds the adult Ana, now a successful novelist, at a writers’ colony fending off the flirtations of self-deprecating journalist Steven (amusing John Zdrojeski).
Through these scrambled scenes, we see that Ana is intelligent, creative and empathic yet psychologically closed off, only really coming alive in her stories. The three interconnected relationships reveal her journey from dysfunction to human connection. Are all these events real or are they in her imagination? We don’t find out until the end when Bonds sews together the various threads of Ana’s life and the title makes sense.
Danya Taymor’s staging successfully differentiates between the various timelines and skillfully balances humor (Steven’s ridiculous jibes about the bugs in his room; Jonah’s fumbling towards first love) with harrowing tragedy (Danny’s possessive manipulation of Ana; Jonah’s revelations about an alcoholic father).
The acting—particularly Beans—clearly delineates the various notes on this polychromatic tone poem of a play. Beans gives fully body to Ana’s teenage-crush giggles with Jonah, her ambivalence towards Danny made up of equal measures of fear and compassion, and her wary attraction to Steven. What’s even more remarkable is her switching between these states like a light bulb going on and off as the scenes move back and forward in time.
Oliveras is an endearing puppy as the adolescent Jonah, clumsily groping his way to Ana. Levine captures Danny’s splintered soul, convincingly making him both a victim and perpetrator of horrible abuse. Zdrojeski provides contrast as a basically mature, but somewhat emotionally stifled suitor to the stand-offish Ana. As noted, he’s particularly funny when Steven tears himself down by going into detail about how he’s allowed his room to become an insect colony. He later shows he’s just as vulnerable as Ana when their relationship is taken to another level. Zdrojeski is equally moving as he is hilarious. Jonah may be a bit of a head-scratcher at first, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with a tearful and fulfilling take on finding love and redemption in unexpected places.
Another just-opened show also explores dysfunction and its corrosive effect on relationships. Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ musical version of Days of Wine and Roses, JP Miller’s teleplay and film about an alcoholic couple’s struggles with addiction, has transferred from its Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company run last year to a limited engagement at Broadway’s Studio 54. During its ATC stand, I found this tuner slight and less impactful than the 1962 film version directed by Blake Edwards and starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Though Michael Greif’s sleek, efficient production is less intimate in the larger house, leads Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara are more at home in the roles of Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen, the booze-infused pair. The connection between them is stronger and both performances have grown dramatically and vocally.
O’Hara’s Playbill bio mentions she is the first crossover artist from Broadway to the Met Opera and you can hear the classical training in her pure, gorgeous soprano as well the deep subtext of pain and neediness she brings to Kirsten’s songs. Likewise d’Arcy James’s rich tones have deepened and express Joe’s equal loneliness. Off-Broadway, some of his arias, particularly his crazed destruction of a greenhouse in search of a hidden bottle of hooch, came across as forced, but now they feel earned.
Guettel’s music cleverly balances jazzy, fun uptempo tunes (replicating Joe and Kirsten’s buzzed euphoria) with more complex, somber numbers as reality crashes in on them. Greif employs Lizzie Clachan’s flexible set and Ben Stanton’s versatile lighting to reinforce these mood swings. Lucas’ book keeps the story moving but still feels underdeveloped and some of Guettel’s lyrics are overly poetic, but the performances and staging have tightened and compensate for any flaws.
Byron Jennings marvelously underplays Kirsten’s strict father, conveying his tumultuous reactions to his daughter’s decline and his contempt for his son-in-law with the simplest of gestures and expressions. Tabitha Lawing, a new addition to the cast, delivers a startlingly mature performance as Lila, the couple’s 11-year-old child. David Jennings still offers solid support as Jim, Joe’s sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. Days of Wine and Roses is a better show now than it was Off-Broadway and deserves your attention.
Jonah: Feb. 1—March 10. Roundabout Theater Company at Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Running time: 100 mins. with no intermission. roundaboutheater.org.
Days of Wine and Roses: Jan. 28—April 28. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC. Running time: one hour and 40 mins. with no intermission. criterionticketing.com.