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Theatre in Review: Agnes (Lesser America/59E59)

Hiram Delgado, Mykal Monroe, and Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning/@huntercanning

In Catya McMullen's comic drama, the hurricane raging outside a New York apartment is nearly matched by the emotional storms set loose inside. At first glance, Agnes looks like an unremarkable genre piece about a bunch of thirtysomethings trying to figure out their next moves, but just wait: The playwright quietly goes about her business, using humor and empathy, plus a knack for solid construction, to make us care about her befuddled, emotionally blocked, slightly treacherous, and all-too-human characters. Unlike Agnes, the weather event, Agnes, the play, sneaks up on one, landing with much more force than you may initially expect.

Holed up in the apartment and riding out the storm are June, a restaurant manager; Elle, her longtime girlfriend; Charlie, June's brother, who has Asperger syndrome; and Ronan, Charlie's best friend since school days. By themselves, they are a remarkably conflicted crew. The naturally steely, controlling June, forever convinced that disaster is just around the corner, is evasive about moving to Philadelphia with Elle, who is soon to start medical school. June hesitates in part because she feels entirely responsible for Charlie, even if he has a good job as a data researcher. Then again, Charlie seemingly lives a highly solitary life, depending on his roommates for a semblance of family. But then why does he disappear for longish periods of time? (As the play begins, he has been absent, without explanation, for two weeks.) Ronan is the in-house clown, a good-natured bro-type, more upset than he will admit about the loss of his most recent girlfriend; it is he who introduces a new and destabilizing force to the household.

That would be Anna, who went to high school with Charlie, June, and Ronan. McMullen probably could have gotten a play out of these four alone -- they bounce around like so many molecules in some unstable substance -- but Anna naturally brings drama with her. She was June's first serious girlfriend -- it becomes increasingly apparent that for June she was the one that got away -- and she has since traveled the world, racking up experiences and adding incalculable notches from both sexes to her belt. As June acidly notes, "I'm just saying your ex roster is like a parade of diversity Ken dolls."

Trying to pass the time, the fivesome repeatedly falls into dangerous emotional territory. A lightning-round truth-and-drinking game exhumes embarrassing details about June, Anna, and their school's girls' water polo team, as well as this exchange:

Anna: Charlie, what's your greatest sexual fantasy?

Charlie: To have it.

The peace is further disturbed by a bawdy, contentious exchange between June and Anna that is overhead by the entire apartment. Ronan leaves a long, rambling, pathetic phone message on his ex's answering machine. And Charlie, announcing that he and Anna once had a "torrid affair" -- in fact, it was nothing of the kind -- decides that she is the best candidate to deflower him -- a plan guaranteed to drive June up the wall.

McMullen treats these conflicts with a distinctively off-angle sense of humor, which goes a long way toward winning us over. June, envious, says to Charlie, "I was on the phone with [their mother] for forty-five minutes earlier -- you get away with less than a minute. What's your secret?" "Asperger's," shrugs Charlie; it's an exchange that gets a laugh and tells you something important about this fractured family. Anna, seeing Charlie after several years, says, "You're so handsome." "I grew into my forehead," he replies. June, in a moment of candor and self-knowledge, reacts to Anna's baking project, saying, "I want to have sex with this cake. But if I put this cake in my vagina I'll probably get a yeast infection. Because even my fantasies get ruined by pragmatism." Unwisely admitting that Elle isn't entirely satisfactory, June adds, "I wanna f--k someone so hard I stop thinking about my to-do lists."

Each of the play's laugh lines is packed with little truths; McMullen never trivializes a character for an easy gag. Charlie is a handsome, chiseled young man, and fairly functional for a person with Asperger's, but inside is a lonely heart hamstrung by his symptoms and desperate to make a connection. "I have poor empathy circuits," he tells Anna, who, intuiting that he picks up every emotional vibe in a room to the point of overload, replies, "I think you might be the most empathetic person I know." Then again, McMullen skillfully guides the audience to the realization that, when it comes to double-crossing themselves emotionally, all five friends are masters of the game.

The script has its occasional weaknesses. Charlie is made to explain his syndrome to Anna, who, of all people, should be familiar with it. A revelation that Ronan's recent breakup has to do with inappropriate behavior around his girlfriend's boss and colleagues doesn't really make sense; it's hard to believe he would act out so destructively. More often, however, the writing has an understated beauty, especially in a series of monologues taken from Charlie's collection of audio tapes, the meaning of which isn't explained until just before the conclusion.

Jenna Worsham's sure-handed direction, deftly balancing humor and heartbreak, results in a quintet of fine performances. Claire Siebers' Anna is a most charming troublemaker, well aware of her limitations and definitely ambivalent about being drawn into Charlie's embrace. You can see why June is both better off without her and why she can't forget her. The role of Ronan could quickly turn boorish, but Hiram Delgado, walking a fine line all night long, makes him into the group's essential funmaker, also giving us a glimpse of his very real vulnerabilities. Similarly, June in the wrong hands could be insufferable, but Laura Ramadei lets us see how she is her own worst enemy. Mykal Monroe trenchantly charts Elle's growing realization that she will never be number one in June's life. John Edgar Barker nails the contradictions in which Charlie is trapped -- for example, yearning for physical connection but shying away from the touch of others -- culminating in a cri de coeur that is likely to linger in your mind for some time after the house lights come up.

Making better use than most of 59E59's intimate Theater C, the scenic designer, Angelica Borrero, lays out a highly workable ground plan featuring a living room and a raked platform with a bed, which stands in at various times for one bedroom or another. Cheyenne Sykes' lighting reshapes the space fluidly. Nicole Slaven's costumes show a keen understanding of contemporary leisurewear, creating distinctive looks for each character. (Checking out Anna's flirty getup, Elle snaps, "You're thirty; wear a real shirt.") Daniel Melnick's sound design includes a cacophony of voices in Charlie's head, a doorbell, and various storm-related effects.

One of the best things about Agnes is its sense of proportion; by not overselling the characters and their dilemmas, McMullen affords us breathing room to care about them as they stumble through some painful moments of self-realization. And she refuses to provide any easy answers. Agnes, the storm will fade quickly, leaving them with much harder questions about the choices they will all soon be forced to make. -- David Barbour

(14 September 2018)

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