by Susan Hasho
The play Agnes produced by the group Lesser America involves four roommates sharing an apartment in New York City—brother Charlie (John Edgar Barker), Charlie’s sister June (Laura Ramadei), the sister’s girlfriend Elle (Mykal Monroe), another guy Ronan (Hiram Delgado) and—a guest, a girl named Anna (Claire Siebers) who is an old friend of June’s. Ronan has invited her to surprise June. Living in a flood zone, Anna needs a place to stay to be safe during the impending hurricane Agnes. This setup could go anywhere, involving any combination of relationships, and/or sexual orientations. The revelation is the writing. The playwright Catya McMullen is a ninja—sharp, quick, crafting funny incisive dialogue. The possibility of edgy insecurity always lingers. I found myself squirming uncomfortably, laughing and feeling an at-home familiarity all at once.
Anna initiates a question game accompanied with gin and all begin to play. Like Truth or Dare some questions are too much, some are funny. As the evening begins, we learn Charlie has Asperger’s syndrome and that he has been gone for some time in an undisclosed location. Perhaps a series of taped interviews has something to do with that. These are performed live by the actors throughout the production and the material becomes a mysterious feature of the play.
Anna is a catalyst for conflict with every other person during the night one way or another, and that woven tap dance of interactions creates many revelations that make this play funny and suspenseful. Claire Siebers, as Anna, is a complicated interloper. Lost, trying to appear casual and hip she cannot help seducing Charlie. But Charlie’s innocent hurt when she plans to move on pulls her up short. She feels sorry and ashamed which is something you can assume she rarely comes up against.
The actors are uniformly excellent. June and Elle’s (Laura Ramadei and Mykal Monroe) relationship struggle is intimate and painfully real. Ronan’s (Hiram Delgado) awkward breakup and revelation about its cause is surprising and beautifully embarrassing. And as the playwright gets closer and closer to the bone, the characters become even more riveting. One of the major achievements of this play and the actors in it is its treatment of Asperger’s syndrome. John Edgar Barker’s Charlie is a fully realized human, created with enormous respect, humor and reality. Agnes may illuminate some of what it feels like for this young man with Asperger’s and his sometimes painful interactions and confusion, and his sister’s experience of dealing with it, as well as, in fact, all around him. But this is a finely written play about five human beings, not a “spectrum” and four others. The director Jenna Worsham has clearly guided these actors with great care and discipline. Agnes is about the reality of all young people’s courageous and often funny forward march through life and it is a production of compelling depth and compassion.
The reason for Charlie’s interviews on tape? Charlie, “I go on buses. All kinds of buses and I talk to people and I record them telling me their greatest moment of human connection I think…I want to understand something about humanity my brain won’t let me feel. I can’t figure it out alone. And I want…I need to…keep trying.
Maybe it could help you, too.”
Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org
Thru September 29