Thursday, September 13, 2018

76 (2018-2019): Review: AGNES (seen September 11, 2018)

“Cracking Her Cheeks”

There’s no need to remind anyone that it’s hurricane season, with a little lady named Florence hurtling toward the Atlantic Coast. Tell that, however, to two emotionally churning plays now playing Off-Broadway, Hurricane Party, the weaker one, down at the Cherry Lane, and Agnes, at 59E59 Theaters. 
Hiram Delgado, Mykal Monroe, Julia Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Both concern folks hunkering down to ride out the gathering storm with sex, games, and booze, the first in Conway, SC (a town right in Florence’s path, by the way), the other in New York City. In Hurricane Party, the fictional tempest is dubbed Evelyn (like the 1977 storm of that name), while the similarly made-up Agnes (despite there being a Hurricane Agnes in 1972) gives its name away in the title.

Although unintentional, there are several parallels in the plays. Both use the external hurricane as a metaphor for the internal turmoil roiling the characters’ relationship and feelings, including issues of faithfulness, friendship, and betrayal, expressed in verbal profanity and visually provocative hetero and homosexual behavior.

Both also are set in homes allowing multiple interior locations to be seen simultaneously. Hurricane Party separates the spaces with scrim-covered walls and Agnes (designed by Angelica Borrero)—which places the audience on either side of the tiny Theater C—shows a bedroom at one end, a living room in the middle, and a small kitchen at the other end. Strings of lightbulbs hanging overhead are used creatively by lighting designer Cheyenne Sykes.
John Edgar Barker, Mykal Monroe, Hiram Delgado, Julia Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
What sets Agnes truly apart is the presence of a 30ish young man named Charlie (John Edgar Barker), a high-functioning, near-genius with Asperger’s, whose own psychological tumult competes for attention with the conflicts raging among the other characters.
Julia Ramadei, Mykal Monroe. Photo: Hunter Canning.
There are five principals in Agnes: Charlie; his younger brother, Ronan (Hiram Delgado); his lesbian sister, June (Laura Ramadei), overly protective of Charlie; June’s lover, Elle (Mykal Monroe), about to enter medical school; and Anna (Claire Siebers), a high school friend of the siblings, who’s arrived seeking safety because her home is in the flood zone. Additional characters, played by these actors, interrupt the action with brief monologues from time to time but aren’t part of the main action.
Claire Siebers, Julia Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
It’s not long before the seething longings, disappointments, and frustrations of the five swirl together in what playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna Worsham hope creates at least a Category 1 drama. While it sometimes clicks, Agnes never gets much past being a theatrical squall. In fact, unlike Hurricane Party, which includes a TV, there’s none in Agnes, whose characters barely pay more than lip service to what’s happening outside. Only the occasional intrusion of a sound effect (from designer Daniel Melnick) reminds us of the maelstrom.
Claire Siebers, John Edgar Barker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ronan, amusing, upbeat, and defiantly cute, is still shaky following a breakup with his girlfriend. Anna, bisexual and promiscuous, is a free spirit and world traveler, who once had a thing in high school with June. June, meanwhile, struggles to keep her old feelings for Anna under control while contending not only with her affection for Elle, jealous of both Charlie and Anna, but with her inability to process Anna’s involvement with the virginal Charlie. He, for his part, desperately wants to have sex with this attractive guest, of whose erotic high school adventures he’s fully aware.
John Edgar Barker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
All the characters wear more or less grungy clothes designed by Nicole Slaven. However, Elle’s complaint about Anna’s inappropriate clothing (“Like that’s not a shirt. Put a real fucking shirt on.”) makes little sense when Anna’s top is hidden by a scarf.  
Laura Ramadei, Hiram Delgado. Photo: Hunter Canning.
When the play begins, Charlie has just returned from a mysterious bus trip, his absence having thrown his brother and sister into worried turmoil. We don’t learn where he’s been or what he was doing until the end, which also ties together the nearly half-dozen monologues mentioned above. All coheres to dramatize the play’s central preoccupation, the difficulty of making human connections between one person and another, a concern with which Charlie is obsessed.

McMullen crafts clever colloquial dialogue and repartee, spoken at breakneck speed, often getting the audience (the younger members, at any rate) to laugh. Much of it is reliably vulgar in a world where play after play (like movie after movie) prefers constant iterations of “fuck,” as if “making love” or some other such euphemism is considered okay only if you’re in your dotage.
Mykal Monroe, Julia Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Each actor plays with vigor and intelligence, although there's a whole lot of shouting going on. The one mildly questionable performance is Barker’s Charlie, played with great sensitively but in a manner reminiscent of the robotically childlike innocence Dustin Hoffman brought to Raymond in Rain Man. Obviously, people on the spectrum speak and behave in a wide variety of ways; that’s why they call it a spectrum.
Claire Siebers, John Edgar Barker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Given Barker’s handsomeness, buffness, perfectly trimmed beard, and tattoos, however, U wonder if the role might not be more effective if spoken not like a stereotype but like the neurotypical person he seems, at least externally, to be. Of course, this is open for discussion, and I'm probably way off base, but it’s certainly possible that the contrast between Charlie’s naiveté and knowledge, at least as written, would work better if his conventionality, not his departure from the norm, was emphasized. Nonetheless, Barker makes an impressive Off-Broadway debut.

As for Agnes, she blows her winds, cracks her cheeks, and rumbles her bellyful but neither casts oak-cleaving thunderbolts nor spouts hurricanoes. 


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 29