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Jonah and Otto

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 8, 2017

Rupert Simonian and Sean Gormley
Photo by Davidawa Photography

The plays of Robert Holman are not widely produced outside his native England, but at home he is known as a prolific creator of quirky and enigmatic works about quirky and enigmatic characters who meet in random encounters and carom off one another like free-flying billiard balls. His 2008 play Jonah and Otto is having its New York debut at the Lion Theater at Theatre Row, and it is most definitely an exemplar of the type.

Otto (Sean Gormley) is an aging clergyman who long ago lost his faith in God and who, although married and a family man, spends a lot of time in solitude. When we first meet him, he is lost in some private thought as he presses the palms of his hands against an old stone wall in a secluded public garden, absorbing the warmth the stones have gathered in the heat of the day. Intruding on his reverie is Jonah (Rupert Simonian), a young man in his 20s, who enters pushing a shopping cart and looking like a homeless street thug or hustler.

That moment when they meet is the first step along a path that takes us increasingly away from conventional logic, and you begin to consider the possibility that you've come upon a pair of mentally impaired characters with a habit of talking aloud to themselves. It's Otto who cryptically breaks the silence: "So what if I am. So what if I do feel lonely. So what if I am peculiar. I don't care a jot." For his part, Jonah responds to the older man as if he were an easy mark: "I'm stony broke," he says. "My pockets are ridiculously empty."

And so it begins, this strange dance that leads you to think you have entered into some sort of absurdist Wonderland without a road map or guidebook. Over the course of the evening, the two circle and prod at one another, inventing and reinventing a kind of bond that keeps changing direction as the playwright offers us just enough tantalizing bits of information to keep us off balance against any explanations we may attempt to impose. Here's what we gather: Both men seem to be potentially suicidal. Both suffer from actual ailments of the brain. Both seem to be aching for love.

But how does it all come together into a coherent whole? All we can do is ask ourselves questions. Are the older man and the younger one representative of two versions of the same person? Is one of them a figment of the other's imagination? What do we make of a scene that plays out in silence, in which Jonah trades clothing with Otto when the latter falls into what appears to be a narcoleptic sleep? How do we interpret Jonah's epileptic seizures? And how do we make sense of the infant, apparently Jonah's daughter, whom he is pushing around in that shopping cart? If this is symbolism, what is it symbolic of?

All in all, this is the kind of world we've been invited into at various times by the likes of Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett. Underneath the abstruse and opaque conversations between Otto and Jonah, there is a longing to connect in a world that is perplexing and terrifying to both. "I'm frightened of life," Otto says at one point. "I'm frightened of death. I'm frightened of God. I'm frightened of you. I'm frightened I'll do it all wrong. I'm frightened I've done it all wrong."

This thrum of gnawing anxious fear is a major theme that Pinter, Albee, and Beckett have all explored, but they have all managed to shape it into theatrical terms. With Jonah and Otto, however, we are left with little by way of form or context. Despite compelling acting by the two performers, under Geraldine Hughes's direction, the audience is kept at arm's length from being able to find the key to the code that will allow us to unearth any but surface meaning from what is essentially a staged version of an abstract and poetic short story. In the end, we are left as walled in as the garden where it all takes place.

Jonah and Otto
Through February 25
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
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