In Catya McMullen’s “Agnes,” five youngish New Yorkers are trapped in an apartment as an epic storm bears down on the city. Although the impending natural disaster, which shares its name with the play, has put them on edge, another cataclysm already has struck their cozy confines and inflicted its own considerable damage: adulthood.
Four of the cloistered bunch are current roommates: siblings June (Laura Ramadei) and Charlie (John Edgar Barker); June’s girlfriend Elle (Mykal Monroe); and their free-spirited, recently dumped friend Ronan (Hiram Delgado). The fifth is the carefree and careless Anna (Claire Siebers), who June, Charlie, and Ronan knew way back in high school. The destabilizing Anna has joined the mix, because the lascivious Ronan has offered her the proverbial port in the storm. That Ronan is well aware of Anna and June’s romantic past highlights his lack of maturity, though to his credit, I suppose, he is oblivious to Charlie’s lingering crush on his sister’s former lover, or at least he initially is.
Stuck in a dead-end job, the anxiety-ridden June is actually already part of a self-defeating love triangle, unequally dividing her attentions between Elle, who is on the verge of attending medical school, and her older brother Charlie, whose Asperger’s has turned June into a caretaker long before anyone should have to assume that type of role. But, leaving Charlie and June’s relationship aside for the moment, let’s recap the play’s purely amorous complications: June, Charlie, and Ronan are all attracted to Anna, who is, in turn, seemingly attracted to everyone else in the apartment. And June and Elle might either be on the verge of getting married or separating. Oh, and despite his apparent insouciance, Ronan actually feels really bad about his girlfriend breaking up with him.
That’s a lot of emotional balls to keep in the air, which director Jenna Worsham manages to do despite McMullen’s rapid-fire willingness to add new ones. Gifting the proceedings with a clarity they don’t necessarily deserve, Worsham manages to keep things humming along even when there are simultaneous scenes of people screaming at each other on Angelica Borrero’s claustrophobic set.
Unfortunately, Worsham’s efforts just confirm the play’s central problem: only the relationship between June and Charlie has any real depth. As for the rest of the characters, although McMullen’s writing is clever, too many of the lines are focused on eliciting laughs rather than explaining why these people are choosing to shelter together. It doesn’t help matters that the play’s lighting by Cheyenne Sykes and sound design by Daniel Melnick are wholly devoted to overdramatizing Charlie’s Asperger’s while failing to offer much-needed periodic reminders of the torrential plot device that keeps everyone from fleeing the cramped apartment.
Still, Anna is such a destructive mess that she should, at the very least, be sleeping in the hallway, with Elle having the greatest reason to put her there. Portrayed with wonderful, and wasted, charisma by Monroe, Elle, however, seems more perturbed by June’s protectiveness toward Charlie than her girlfriend’s simmering sexual bond with Anna, which is both thoroughly callous and inexplicable. As for Ronan, he’s essentially just a puckish cypher whose brief bit of pathos comes across as a playwright’s afterthought.
As McMullen hammers home repeatedly, “Agnes” is about the difficulty of forming human connections, but, for the most part, she hasn’t written characters who should connect, because they’re either too solipsistic or paper thin. Occasionally, she’ll slip in a tragic detail to encourage the audience to see a character in a better light, but it’s usually so overtly manipulative that it ends up undermining the intended effect.
Doubling down on the theme of human connection, McMullen gives Charlie a not remotely believable way of dealing with his Asperger’s: recording the stories of regular folk on long-distance bus trips. The play is actually bracketed by a scene in which Charlie returns from practicing his clandestine hobby, having, of course, scared the bejesus out of June, and one in which he fesses up to what he has been doing and why, explaining to the still-worried June that the interviews stem from a desire “to understand something about humanity my brain won’t let me feel.” Ramedei, Monroe, Delgado, and Siebers take turns portraying each of Charlie’s “subjects,” whose monologues are well-written and well-delivered, which is why, in the end, they don’t work. Both too revealing and too polished, they sound like a talented playwright showing off rather than someone speaking to a stranger on a bus with a tape recorder.
But there are a few moments just between Charlie and June when the play works beautifully, with Ramadei and Barker heartbreakingly showing us how lonely a devotion to someone else can be. Now, that’s an adult reality worth exploring.
Agnes (through September 29, 2018)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission