The Roundabout Theater Company website tells you right off the bat that the main character in “Jonah“, the astonishing and slippery new play by Rachel Bonds, “is not all that it seems.” And if you click on the link to the production content notice, self-harm, suicide and physical violence are among the topics reported.
All of this can leave the viewer in a state of distrust – which turns out to be a great way to watch this play: trusting nothing, not knowing where reality lies, firmly guarding against any form of charm. Be careful, “Jonah” will charm you anyway and make you laugh. It will be the same for Jonah, the adorable day student (or is he?) that Ana, our teenage heroine, meets at her boarding school (or is she?). Who and what is illusory here?
The notes I took during the show are filled with such skepticism about my own perceptions, even as Danya Taymor’s excellent overall production, which opened Thursday at the Laura Pels Theater, drew me in.
The funny, affectionate banter between the self-confident Ana (Gabby Beans, in a peak performance) and the more broken-winged Jonah (a disarming Hagan Oliveras) is utterly adolescent, as is the way they occupy their body. They still have the lightness of little children, but it’s mixed with brazen boldness (especially hers) and mortified caution (especially hers), as hormones and desire have entered the picture.
“I don’t want to be weird,” Jonah says in Ana’s dorm room, when things between them are trending toward intimacy, “and I just want you to feel good and safe and like my whole body is basically a alien colony, I have been colonized by sexual aliens and I am sorry.
With a flash of white light and a zapping sound, the heartwarming comedy of this milieu disappears, as does Jonah. Ana is now in her room at home, where a guy named Danny (Samuel H. Levine), who appears to be her brother, is giving off a deeply creepy vibe. (Set design by Wilson Chin, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker and sound by Kate Marvin.)
“Daddy’s freaking out downstairs,” Danny says, and we quickly figure out a few things: They live in an abusive home, united against an abusive parent, and there’s a skin-crawling but mutual sexual energy between Ana and Danny, including an attention Hypervigilance towards her implies both possessiveness and manipulation.
Flash, zap, and Danny is gone, and Ana is older, more distant, at a writers’ retreat, maybe? There’s a knock at his door, and a guy named Steven (John Zdrojeski) appears, silly and impatient and mosquito-bitten, preppy in a way that makes him feel like he should be windsurfing. (Her casual summer suit, by Kaye Voyce, is perfect.)
Could Steven be a real human being? Could Ana imagine this scenario? Is Danny a memory, or a character from a book she wrote, or both? Practically brimming with tension, Bonds’ multi-layered play traverses time, blending realities, tracing Ana’s trauma, and disorienting us.
“Jonah,” which reminds me of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” is the kind of piece that reveals itself slowly but fully, without undermining its own considerable power by wrapping anything up with care.
A tension comes over us when we look at it, a fear that is close to your heart. We always know when we sense danger, even if it is sometimes a false alarm. But how to recognize security? Ana can’t say it anymore, and neither can we.
Through March 10 at the Laura Pels Theater in Manhattan; rond-pointtheatre.org. Duration: 1h40.