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Dramatizing Desire and Addiction in Jonah and The White Chip

Rachel Bonds’s writing in Jonah is at its best when characters are describing their fantasies. There’s a scene, early on, when Ana (Gabby Beans) has invited Jonah (Hagan Oliveras, with all the gawky charm of a Chalamet) up to her boarding-school dorm room, and in a sweet, awkward teen way, he’s stumbled into talking about how everything makes him think about ***: “We’ll be stretching for soccer and I’m just staring at someone’s — anyone’s! — calf muscle and then all of a sudden — or, or, or my desk lamp! At home! Sort of looks like a **** and then — or!” He goes on and on … For Ana, however, there’s always a story involved: She wants to imagine a man stumbling to her door through the rain confessing he missed a flight for her, or a long-time partner in combat journalism suddenly admitting he has feelings. She gets carried away in a flurry of emotion — “Then we stare at each other for a moment, and we kiss, like, the best, like the best, most full, most passionate kiss ever” — and then the actual consummation falls by the wayside — “and then I guess we have ***.”

A similar dynamic repeats itself in a later context, when an older Ana and another man named Steven (John Zdrojeski) start opening up about their ****** fantasies, though Steven’s are different (he’s an ex-Mormon) and so are Ana’s. The exact ways in which Ana’s has changed constitute a kind of emotional spoiler, but suffice it to say that in Ana’s new answer, Bonds allows us to see how experience moves the frame of what we want and what we think we deserve. It’s difficult, too, to describe how exactly the Ana in that conversation relates to the Ana we see in her dorm room at the beginning of the play, as Jonah itself presents the audience with a slippery series of realities, even while it remains emotionally acute. First, we see Ana in puppy love with Jonah at boarding school; then, those scenes intercut with another Ana, maybe around the same age, with an overbearing brother, Danny (Samuel H. Levine), in much tenser circumstances, the two of them negotiating around an abusive father; third, Steven knocks on the door of another, older Ana. The scenes with Jonah and Danny contradict each other (an early tell: Ana saying to Jonah that she only has sisters back home), and for much of the play, Bonds keeps the audience uncertain of how this all could resolve. Is one more real than the others? What’s a memory and what’s an invention? Can fantasy, given enough investment, overtake reality?

For a conceit like that to work, you need a performer who can balance all the conceptual spinning plates a playwright throws at her. Thank *** for Gabby Beans, who can go broad and camp (as in The Skin of Our Teeth) or shattered and still (as in Anatomy of a Suicide). Beans and director Danya Taymor (who loves a darkened stage, as seen here, in Pass Over, and Heroes of the Fourth Turning) do the work of pinning the evasive circumstances of Bonds’s writing down to recognizably human actions and traits, like they’re battening down a frigate in a storm. As the circumstances around Ana change, Beans makes us see both how she’s the same woman underneath — intense, self-certain, often taken advantage of but determined not to be a victim — and how one’s personality adapts within new circumstances. Beans, when she’s with Oliveras’s Jonah, gives Ana the confidence of space. Adopting the mannerisms of a teen, she stomps across the stage as he backs away from her in awe, and freely shows him her ***** because she finds him cute. When she’s with Levine’s Danny, however, Beans recedes into herself. She seems literally smaller, as trying to shrink the atoms of her body closer together for safety, while Levine hulks above her. (Their dynamic, also, tends to be weaker, as Bonds, in digging for intensity, sometimes comes up with melodrama.) With Zdrojeski’s Steven, she’s hardened like a diamond. These men — and it’s a pointed casting choice that Beans is a Black woman across from three white men — are all drawn to Ana, all expect her to fulfill fantasies of their own, while she struggles to carve out space for her own desires.

Bonds sets Jonah within a series of bedrooms, all represented by the same set by Wilson Chin. There’s a bed with dull cream sheets, curtains of the same color, a grim little writing desk, and a door, through which the three men appear and disappear. It could be a dorm room or a bedroom in the suburbs, or somewhere else that’s similarly anonymous and disconcerting. (It reminded me, also, of the evil-motel feeling of the set of Dana H.) Like so much of the play, the energy of the place is haunting and familiar, even while purposefully nonspecific. Another theme buried within Jonah is how our repressed memories are most likely to come up in generic liminal spaces. In fact, Bonds’s writing tends to get weaker when, as Jonah decelerates toward its conclusion, she arrives at the busywork of clarifying what exactly has happened to Ana. By that point, the audience, intuitively, already seemed to know what she would reveal, because we had already felt it in the performance. Perhaps there was also the disappointment of knowing that what we’d seen would be sorted into “real” and “imaginary.” It can be much richer to live in uncertainty.

Jonah is at the Laura Pels Theatre.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Where Jonah is intentionally twisty, The White Chip is remarkably straight down the middle. Billed as a “recovery comedy,” the play is just what it says on the label: Steven (Joe Tapper) walks onstage, designed to resemble an AA meeting, for a one-act talk about his experiences in recovery with wit, charm, and the help of the other two cast members Jason Tam and Crystal Dickinson who take on a variety of supporting roles. Steven grew up Mormon in Utah, discovered drinking as a teenager, solidified his habit at college in Florida, and then tried to hide his dependency while becoming a rising star a theater director until his binges derailed his career. In his attempts at recovery, he earned the white chip — given when you have 24 hours or a will to stop drinking — several times over, before finding his own way of sticking with sobriety. An understanding of science, and specifically how your brain processes dopamine, Steven emphasizes, was more helpful in his case than falling before a higher power.

There is a bit of possible confusion here. Though this is presented as a confession, the real story is not Tapper’s but playwright Sean Daniels’s. (A man exiting the theater alongside me was surprised when his friend told him this.) Daniels co-founded the Atlanta theater company Dad’s Garage and later became an associate at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and his character within the play follows a similar trajectory, though some specifics are left vague. Tapper’s roguish charm sells the freewheeling charisma one can feel while ***** and pulls back when dire circumstances hit, but delivered secondhand, the story loses weight and immediacy. Director Sheryl Kaller keeps the play moving at a zippy clip — a ****** is set to “Rich Man’s Frug,” complete with shimmying — but we’re always a safe distance from the worst possible outcomes, both because we know Steven will make it through and because in most case we know all this is a construct.

The other issue may be that many stories of addiction resemble each other, and so does theater about it (i.e., Days of Wine and Roses, which I saw on Broadway just a few days before this). The cruelty of the disease can lie in its mundanity. One AA mentor, for instance, points out to Steven he’s especially susceptible because he thinks he can outsmart it. But in theater, familiarity is dangerous. Stories of recovery can be inspiring, especially for those on their own journey, though you want more from theater than inspiration alone.

There, at least, The White Chip has the advantage of its comedy. Even if the play repeats the expected beats, it at least does so with humor and gets in and out quickly. Even while his avatar is in his worst circumstances, Daniels has Steven find the absurdity in his decision-making with jokes about how every Kentucky airport bar seems to have bourbon and the experience of heading from a DUI arrest to judging children’s theater performances. Alcoholism, in this instance, acts like the construction of a classic joke: You can see the punch line coming, but it still hits when it arrives.

The White Chip is at the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater in the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.

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