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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 13, 2018

Hiram Delgado, Mykal Monroe, and Laura Ramadei
Photo by Hunter Canning

Until recently, playwright Catya McMullen's biggest claim to fame was winning the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in 2012 for her two-character work Missed Connections. More recently, her Locked Up Bitches, a parody of Netflix's popular "Orange Is The New Black," had a run at the Flea Theater. But if you want to see this rising star take a creative leap forward, you should head over to 59E59 Theaters, where her latest play, Agnes, opens tonight. It is a thoroughly engaging production that shows McMullen to be a writer with a great ear for dialog and the ability to create quirky yet genuinely believable and appealing characters.

Agnes takes the form of an ensemble piece that allows for various permutations of interactions among the five characters. Four of these are roommates in a New York City apartment, holed up against an encroaching hurricane, the "Agnes" of the title. The storm is, of course, a metaphor for the one that is brewing inside, especially after the quartet is joined by a visitor from the past.

The flat is home to siblings June (Laura Ramadei) and Charlie (John Edgar Barker), as well as to June's long-term girlfriend Elle (Mykal Monroe), and their fun-loving pal Ronan (a manic and very funny Hiram Delgado). They are joined by a refugee from the storm, Anna (Claire Siebers), an attractive charmer who, as the evening progresses, wreaks hurricane-like damage of her own.

Charlie is the one who sits in the eye of the storm. He is loveable and smart, with an "IQ on the border of genius" as he puts it. But he is also on the autism spectrum, with Asperger syndrome that leaves him unable to read everyday social cues. A man in his early 30s, the same age range as the other characters, Charlie is keenly aware of his developmental disorder that "won't let me feel." He functions best when situations are predictable, and he actually does quite well with those familiar faces he sees on a daily basis. He has been under the loving if somewhat stifling watchful care of his sister June for a long time, but he wants to be more independent. More specifically, he wants to understand how to attract and have a relationship with a woman. To this end, he is doing everything he can think of to learn how to behave appropriately around others. This includes mysteriously leaving home for weeks at a time, to the dismay of his sister to whom no longer confides.

But June has troubles of her own as well, especially when it comes to her ambiguous feelings about Elle, who is preparing to enter medical school and wants June and she to marry and settle down together. And while Ronan seems to be a happy-to-lucky bro type, a late night phone call to his ex-girlfriend suggests there is more to him than he generally shows to the others. Everyone is off balance, then, and is standing on already wobbly ground when in comes Anna, a seductive ill wind that blows no one any good when she arouses not-quite-buried old passions.

Ms. McMullen, the playwright does an especially fine job of setting things up and letting the chips fall as they may, offering spot-on naturalistic dialog that is quite in keeping with her characters' personalities. By pushing their ages past their free-form post-adolescent years, a time of life that other writers like Michael Weller, Albert Innaurato, and Kenneth Lonergan have previously mined for gold, Ms. McMullen is able to place them all at a scary crossroads of adult self-determination and decision making.

Director Jenna Worsham has done a fine job in creating a strong ensemble feel to the performances that is well suited to the small theater space. The set by Angelica Borrero is minimal but adequate, and Cheyenne Sykes' lighting and Daniel Melnick's sound design are, at times, used quite effectively to give us a feel for the sort of sensory overload Charlie has to cope with in his life. By the play's end, we not only care about and wonder what will become of him, but we also want to know whether June and Elle will be able to move forward with their relationship, whether Ronan will be able to push through to maturity, and even what will become of the troublesome and troubled Anna as she heads back out into the storm. Human connection, it seems, is not easy for anyone.

Through September 29
59E59 Theaters - Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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