Review: ‘Jonah and Otto’ at The Lion Theatre

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Robert Holman is a British playwright whose plays have been done under the auspices of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company,
he’s had productions of his many plays at half a dozen other respected theatres in London, and as far apart as Los Angeles and Tokyo. But with Jonah and Otto is the first to reach New York. It’s now running at the tiny Lion Theatre on 42nd Street, where its cast of two are Rupert Simonian and Sean Gormley.

Rupert Simonian as Jonah and Sean Gormley as Otto. Photo by Davidawa Photography.

It’s set in a dilapidated garden hemmed in by a crumbling vine covered wall which, as the play progresses becomes a symbol of a disillusioned Vicar (Otto) and a young tough (Jonah) who joins him wheeling a grocery cart loaded with food, clothing, odd objects and his six week old infant daughter, who sleeps soundlessly throughout the play. At the start we feel the added presence of Harold Pinter and/or Samuel Beckett. Their works were labeled “theatre of the absurd” or “abstract theatre” and Robert Holman is a descendant of theirs. He chooses to write with a touch of both forms and it turns Otto and Jonah, as beautifully acted by Robert Simonian and Sean Gormley, into examples of where humanity has taken a wrong turn. Mr. Gormley’s take on “Otto” is clean and clear. He is presented to us as a 62 year-old seemingly settled man whose work with the church, whose family life with wife and three grown children is perceived as nourishing, presents a profile that would hardly indicate the profound loneliness he feels, his destabilizing sense of failure, and his conclusion that life is meaningless. Outwardly respectable and attractive, the revelations that come at us during the 90 minutes of our visit with him, are surprising. He is contrasted with the arrival soon after his own of a young man who from the start is aggressive, contradictory, puzzling. Here we have two characters who are strangely detached from their real worlds. They attack each other verbally again and again, often turning from badinage to vitriol in one sentence, but end their time together having been exposed to one another.

Colorful and often vulgar verbal darts are thrown by both but much of the banter is metaphorical and sounds more like repartee than cohesive conversation. Jonah uses slight of hand to rob Otto, but Otto doesn’t seem to mind – until he does. Then he gives money to the young man without asking anything in return. Later, when his head has nodded into deep sleep, Jonah gracefully strips him of his clothes down to his underwear, no mean feat when the victim is seated in a shirt, trousers, jacket, shoes and a clerical collar. When Otto awakens he accepts Jonah’s tacky jeans, sweatshirt and scruffy shoes and puts them on. Oddly, he looks more comfortable in the casual costume than Jonah does when elegantly dressed. Are we to assume it’s meant that they are reverse images of each other?

London reviews for Jonah and Otto were for the most part excellent, but I found the play a well intentioned ode to loneliness and disappointment, with a message that is far too cryptic.The performances of Rupert Simonian and Sean Gormley were arresting, the direction of Geraldine Hughes and the seedy garden set of Ann Beyersdorfer added atmosphere and pace, but in the end the verbal sallies, unfortunately, did not engage or teach me.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Jonah and Otto closed on February 25, 2017.

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