British playwright Robert Holman finally makes his New York City debut with Jonah and Otto, an involving, splendidly acted drama with palindromic elements that opened last night at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. The story takes place over one day on the East Sussex coast, where Otto (Sean Gormley), a proper, well-dressed vicar, is rubbing himself against a stone wall. The much younger, slovenly Jonah (Rupert Simonian) enters through a door, startling Otto. “So what if I am. So what if I do feel lonely. I’m not saying I do,” the immediately defensive Otto declares. Otto assumes that Jonah is a thief, and the younger man does indeed need money. “It’s a disgrace to be poor. Is it my bloody fault?” Jonah, who considers himself an entertainer and magician, says. For the next ninety minutes, the two men play a kind of psychological cat-and-mouse game, discussing love, suicide, poshies and muckies, God, doubt, and family as each slowly faces his inner demons. Otto and Jonah might seem like opposites — the former a tall, well-spoken, well-off man of the cloth, the latter a less-educated, shlumpy dude with no money; even their ages are inverses, Otto sixty-two, Jonah twenty-six — but it soon becomes apparent that they are more alike than they realize, or are willing to admit. Both men are fathers — Otto is married with four daughters, while Jonah has an infant girl in the grocery cart he pushes around with all his belongings, but they both also are deeply lonely souls disappointed in what their lives have become. “There’s something sweet about loneliness; I had promises to keep,” Otto explains. “I failed miserably. Life? It’s just one more thing to keep clean.” Meanwhile, Jonah says, “I know I’m useless. I’m worthless. I’m very small.” The play gets bogged down by a pair of health-related melodramatic subplots that further link the two men. “What would you think if we was the last two people on earth?” Jonah asks. Otto responds, “I’d think how unlucky I was to end up with you.”
Holman’s other plays, which date back to 1972, include The Overgrown Path at the Royal Court, Bad Weather at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky at the Lyric Hammersmith, written with David Eldridge (The Knot of the Heart, In Basildon) and Simon Stephens (Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and featuring Simonian. Presented by Lost Tribe Theatre, which specializes in producing works by underappreciated British and American playwrights, Jonah and Otto, despite a few bumps, is a cogent, analytical tale, ably helmed by actress and first-time director Geraldine Hughes (Jerusalem, Belfast Blues). Irish Rep veteran Gormley (The Weir, A Day by the Sea) is solid and caring as the stiff-upper-lipped Otto, who is at a crossroads in his life, while Simonian (Peter Pan, To Kill a Mockingbird) is engaging as the odd Jonah, who is smarter than he lets on. The two have an instant chemistry that has you rooting for them. Holman’s dialogue is constantly surprising and wonderfully layered, with funny insults and clever insight, particularly in a somewhat surreal scene in which the similarities between the two men are crystallized with a touch of playful magic. “Why did you have to find me?” Otto asks Jonah. You’ll be glad he did.