By Sarah Downs
I am finding it difficult to find words that do justice to Jonah and Otto. It is a fascinating piece of writing wherein a simple premise gives rise to refreshing catharsis. On a midsummer evening, in a faded garden by the sea protected by a tumble-down stone wall, Jonah, an apparent itinerant with a baby and shopping cart in tow happens upon Otto, a lonely older man who has been drawn to the garden for his ritual evening mystery. He craves the touch of the wall, whose stones have soaked up the sun’s warmth during the day to share it during the night, like some multi-level rechargeable battery. Two men, two lives, two conflicting energies. They meet; they converse; they embark on the Sisyphean journey we all contemplate: the search that elusive, authentic connection.
British playwright Robert Holman has written an extraordinary play. It’s like a photo-bomb (a play-bomb, if you like) that sneaks up on you and then BOOM. Verbally dazzling, alternately pricklish and unruffled, the writing builds subtly on rhythmic increments through a gamut of emotions, at times exploding with unforeseen revelation. Everything is paradoxes and half-admitted truths, a regular tattoo of attack and retreat, in a dance where the two characters Jonah and Otto repel each other only to be drawn inexorably into each other’s orbit again and again.
Director Geraldine Hughes has masterfully fine-tuned the work of this pair of enormously talented actors to a razor-sharp attention to detail from the music of the text to the arc of the narrative. The energy never wanes. Sean Gormley as Otto is beautiful to watch. In his musical, crisp, cool voice that can turn on a dime from plaintive to angry to warm, he establishes character with his very first syllable. Otto is an odd duck, uncomfortable in his own skin but nonetheless emotionally wise just when you think he is at his weakest. Rupert Simonian as Jonah also hits the ground running. He is something else. Young, odd, enigmatic, insistent – a prickly boy sure of his imminent rejection. Simonian elides Otto’s various moods smoothly but never abandons the essential Jonah. Both actors inhabit their roles seamlessly. They don’t act; they share. In their vivid emotional generosity they connect with the audience. At the end of the play I found myself planning what they should do next, as if I were actually in their lives.
Rupert Simonian and Sean Gormley give multi-faceted performances that hold your interest for 90 minutes straight of very challenging monologues and in-the-moment dialogue. I’m seriously going to buy a ticket and see this play again, so when you all dash to the Lion Theatre box office, save a spot for me!
Jonah and Otto, by Robert Holman; with Rupert Simonian and Sean Gormley; presented by Lost Tribe Theatre and Firefly Theater & Films; directed by Geraldine Hughes; produced by Steven Klein and Nick Micozzi; sets: Ann Beyersdorfer; lighting design: Kate Bashore; sound design: Ian Wehrle; costume design: Katie Sue Nicklos; assistant director; Taylor Thomson; stage manager: Kat West; magic consultant: Evan Gambardella; associate producer: Natalia Duncan Macker. At The Lion, Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St.); February 1st – 25th, 2017; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8:00 p.m. Saturdays at 2:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets go to www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200. Run time 90 minutes with no intermission.