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L to R: RUPERT SIMONIAN as Jonah and SEAN GORMLEY as Otto in

by Robert Holman at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row

Photos: Davidawa Photography

Jonah and Otto


                                                        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 semi-ecstasy.


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.