The Disappearance of Jonah
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They say: “When small town golden boy Jonah Thompson moves to New York City, he dreams that the city will be his playground but soon he disappears. Two years later his brother Finn sets out to find Jonah, or at least some answers.”
Brett’s take: It’s painful to review a show that clearly has benefited from hours upon hours of effort and attention from thoughtful, hardworking people (who have traveled to D.C. from New York) but that nevertheless leaves you cold. You can see the conviction in the actor’s faces, hear it in their voices, and even see it in the way one of the leads’ limbs shake with apparent nervousness before going into a big scene. But sincerity can’t save this production from pretentiousness and hollowness.
The plot concerns… well, the disappearance of a college student named Jonah. It leaps back and forth from the time leading up to that event and some years afterwards (two years, as far as I could grasp), when Jonah’s younger brother Finn goes to New York City to search for him on Jonah’s birthday. In quick succession, we meet a coterie of educated New York characters, including a writer, a professor, a photographer/physics student, and an aspiring actress/waitress, all of whom had some connection with Jonah and all of whom begin to have new connections to each other. Just why these new connections start happening right when Finn is arriving at the city – besides convenience for writer Darragh Martin- is an unanswered question that points to the problems with the play.
Described by director Sarah Wansley as part “love letter” to New York City as well as “elegy for the simpler selves we left behind,” the play interjects poetic monologues, spoken by the dissapeared Jonah in front of projections of New York City (subway, traffic, Statue of Liberty), between lightning-fast scenes in past and present. I found this poetry to be self-indulgent – while clever, I do not know just what a description of the subway lines of New York tangling and untangling themselves really illuminates, either about the characters or the City, metaphorically or otherwise. And this tendency towards overwriting and showiness extends into the dialogue scenes, the result being that characters often talk about images of grief instead of expressing the grief itself. Similarly, when New York is described, the poetic aspirations force the language into clichÃ©. We all know that there is a dark side to New York and a glamorous one, that different people see it differently; it would be one thing to see this displayed, but instead we just hear it said. And the fact that New York has bums and tourists sharing avenues is not what makes New York special; it hardly differentiates it from D.C., let alone Chicago.
Occasionally, a powerful image seeps through the hot air, for example, “She sucks on pain like a lollipop, she can’t get enough.” Often the way flashbacks weave in, ghostlike, with the present-day scenes is telling and deftly orchestrated. And the actors acquit themselves well, particularly Patrick Barrett as Jonah and Thomas Anawalt as Finn, declaiming the poetry with flair and music. …However. Character is too often left to the wayside, the scenes flying by too fast to get to know who these people are. Too much time is wasted on meaningless tangents (like the professor’s book and the brother’s dreams of an insect circus). The best moments – when I saw what the playwright was truly capable of, were, peculiarly enough, during flirtation scenes, when the poetry was traded for the multi-layered New York-y kind of sarcasm and self-deprecation that sounds like real coffeeshop conversation between real people.
I must admit some personal bias against realistic-plot/poetic-language plays; or rather, I rarely feel I see them done well. They are a modern genre unto themselves, wherein a slew of similar and usually twenty-something characters with defining quirks avoid expressing their true feelings about emotional events by engaging in stage poetry. What playwrights of such pieces too often miss, I believe, is that, in a play, the quality of the poetry alone is meaningless; what matters is that the characters have an emotional reason to say it the way they are saying it. That’s the guiding principle in all of Shakespeare; it’s what makes the plays of John Guare and August Wilson and Sheila Callaghan (most of the time) so great; but unfortunately for the talented members of Aporia Repertory Company, it’s a connection mostly lacking here.
See it if: You get interested in a play for what it’s trying to be, not what it is.
Skip it if: You don’t even like this type of play when it’s done better at Catalyst or Woolly.