Theater Review

Dallas theater company's world-premiere play gets lost at sea

Dallas theater company's world-premiere play gets lost at sea

Undermain Theatre presents Jonah
Jonathan Brooks is Jonah at Undermain Theatre. Photo by Ashley Randall

Undermain Theatre's longtime partnership with playwright Len Jenkin has brought about another world premiere, but unfortunately this work isn't quite worth the wait.

It's the production itself, directed by Katherine Owens, that gives Jonah its allure. The set by John Arnone is part circus big top, part Tiki bar, enveloping the audience in a 360 world. There's sand beneath your feet and a potent Zombie Skull Puncher to sip on, and it's easy to get lost in Steve Woods' surreal lighting.

Much like Abraham Zobell's Home Movie: Final Reel, Jenkin's last Undermain premiere, Jonah is dream-like and non-linear. The title character is one of God's messengers, but he's also a mess. Jonathan Brooks leans into Jonah's sloppiness, drunkenly pinballing from one situation to another until he ends up in the belly of the famous whale.

There's a subplot, too, that barely ties into the main story. Patrick Bynane is a biblical scholar who suffers a sudden brain aneurysm. His daughter (Katherine Bourne) and the stoner beach bum who works for them (Marcus Stimac) try diligently to help him recover his mind.

The connection? Bynane's Mr. Rhodes was having an affair with one of his students, a lounge singer named Sheila (Kelsey Milbourn), and she shows up looking for money for an abortion. She hitched a ride with Jonah, who was too drunk to leave her bar under his own power. So into a stolen red convertible they hop, and suddenly it's a road trip story.

There's also a gang of cruise ship-robbing pirates (led by Whitney Coulter), a blind narrator named Mr. Bones (Jeremy Schwartz), a sullen convenience store clerk (Courtney Mentzel), and a few cameos from a ukulele-strumming God (Bruce DuBose).

What's especially troubling here is how Jenkin writes his female characters. Two are pregnant and desperate for their men to support them, and a third is stuck playing nursemaid. Only Coulter's pirate queen has any agency, though her rash decision to throw the cruise ship's captain and crew overboard comes back to haunt her in the end. The men, on the other hand, seem to happily drift through this strange life, avoiding any real problems — well, except for that brain injury.

It's a lot to pack into 90 minutes, but any longer and Jonah would truly get lost at sea. Perhaps order a second Zombie Skull Puncher before diving in.

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Jonah plays at Undermain Theatre through May 7.