L to R:
RUPERT SIMONIAN as Jonah and SEAN GORMLEY as Otto in
by Robert Holman at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row
by Eugene Paul
Designer Ann Beyersdorf’s captivatingly beautiful setting, a
ruined, walled, English garden, is the secret haunt of silver haired Otto
(splendid Sean Gormley), the local cleric we find pressing himself orgasmically
spreadeagled, face against the garden wall, eyes closed. He is abruptly
awakened when young, downright scruffy Jonah (astonishingly good Rupert
Simonian) looking much younger than the 26 years he’s assigned by playwright
Robert Holman – Otto is 62 – it’s a playwright’s fancy – and our fragment of a
garden is in the south of England in 2003 – enters as if he lives here, hangs
his jacket on his customary convenient twig of a dead vine twined artfully
near the arched portal and stops dead. He’s seen Otto. Otto in his
Embarrassed Otto, exercising his full, mature authority, his
rights in this treasured place, demands to know what this snotty boy, this
interloper, thinks he’s doing here. Whereupon Jonah goes out the door and
returns immediately wheeling a grocery cart obviously purloined, laden with all
of his possessions. And a baby.
Otto’s splutterings from shock and outrage fizzles into concerned
astonishment. A baby? Who is suddenly being protected by an impish, malevolent
hustler who wants Otto’s money, threatenes him with a knife, then gives up his
thuggish charade and collapses in an epileptic fit. Throwing Otto off balance
again, his own, innate altruism combined with the duties of succor indicated
by his collar push him into caring about this derelict boy and his baby.
In an almost constant veering of non-sequiturs, each of them
divulges to the other that they do not care a fig about each other, that they
do care, that they demand that each other give way and leave, that they do not
mind if the other stays. And a kind of détente obtains. Young Jonah finds that
Otto, the epitome of upper class British stuffed shirt, had German forbears,
hence his name. Jonah reveals his Cockney roots with every utterance. This
walled garden ruin is Otto’s escape from his family and his responsibilities as
a religious. Jonah has escaped here from the authorities because he’s
homeless. Playwright Holman’s jarring counterpoints of two ill met Englishmen
gains odd colors from their quirks and foibles. But we are asking ourselves
funny, little questions.
All right, Jonah filches money right out of Otto’s pockets, then
gives it back. Hmmm? Jonah forces Otto into participating in his magic card
tricks, okay, but – how did Jonah conceal the king of diamonds behind a brick
in the wall? In fact, how did Jonah know of the brick’s hiding place? And why
is there a convenient butt can available when Otto – or Jonah – finish their
frequent cigarettes.? Even though Jonah does not smoke? These and other
questions we cannot quite keep from thinking about are piddling compared to the
choreographed dispatch with which Jonah hypnotizes Otto – or puts him to sleep?
–and proceeds to steal his clothing right off him before our eyes. He needs
Otto’s clothes; his own are too shabby. They’ve prevented him from getting on
the ferry to France. His French sweetheart, the baby’s mother, had to leave
her six weeks old infant behind in England for murky family reasons. Now,
Jonah is determined to go after her.
If you have kept up with the absurdities and realized that these
are the absurdities of ordinary mortals, epilepsy and all, you’ve also realized
that playwright Holman is not saying “What fools these mortal be” but that
foolishness is part and parcel of fate, that our destinies are as much
determined by us as we by them. Clergyman Otto, who doesn’t believe in God,, or
maybe does, whose family is as nothing to him as he to them, finds he is caring
about the young wretch and his baby. And Jonah is slipping out of his well
earned youthful cynicism finding he cares for this hapless mark he’s robbed,
conned and could not resist.
Director Geraldine Hughes taps deeply into her acting resources to
bring Sean Gormley into his best performance to date and to ensure a warm
welcome for Rupert Simonian’s American debut. It’s heartening to want to see
more of them. Katie Sue Nicklos has dressed them well and aptly. Kate Bashore
supplies artful lighting, and Ian Wehrle’s sound matches the tale comfortably.
Jonah and Otto. At the Lion, Theatre Row, 410
West 42nd Street. Tickets: $50. Discounts. 212-239-6200. 90 min.
Thru Feb 25.