A storm named Agnes is bearing down on New York, and Ronan has bought a little boat in its honor. Comically little, actually — an inflatable fit for a pool. But when he brings it home to the apartment he shares with June and her brother, Charlie, its colorful presence feels big and bold: a defiantly cheery gesture at a time when they all could use some extra buoyancy.
“This storm is going to be like a cruise,” he announces as they prepare for the weather to strike. “A really fun family cruise.”
In Catya McMullen’s tender, funny, crowded new play “Agnes,” at 59E59 Theaters, that’s not quite how things work out. Directed by Jenna Worsham for Lesser America, this is an excursion into the depths of longing, examining the ties that bind too tightly and the connections that are dangerously frayed.
As the play begins, Charlie (John Edgar Barker) has just returned home after a two-week absence that left June (Laura Ramadei) frantic with worry. He declines to tell her where he’s been. She is his younger sister, but she has always looked after him — a dynamic that has begun to strain. Sweet and contemplative, he’s an adult with Asperger’s syndrome, and she’s a helicopter sibling.
June’s girlfriend, Elle (Mykal Monroe), who also lives in the apartment, can’t possibly take precedence. That’s a problem, because Elle is about to start medical school in Philadelphia, and she wants June to come along.
As the women’s relationship approaches the rocks, Ronan (Hiram Delgado) further destabilizes it by inviting a guest to wait out the storm with them: the beautiful, reckless Anna (Claire Siebers), June’s former best friend. Bringing a sexual charge into the apartment, Anna is fully aware of her allure to at least three of the roommates, including Ronan, who’s fresh off a breakup, and Charlie, who hopes she will help him lose his virginity.
That’s probably too much to be going on at once — an emotional perfect storm. But Ms. Worsham makes sense of it with an energetic production that’s lucid even in scenes of chaos, which she balances with slowed-down moments of intimacy and quietly concentrated monologues. (In those, all beautifully delivered, Mr. Delgado is especially strong.)
One caveat: The audience sits on either side of the set (by Angelica Borrero), and Ms. Worsham’s staging doesn’t always allow for clear sight lines. From my seat, three important scenes, including the final one, were only partially visible.
The cast is gorgeous, though, and Ms. Siebers reveals an Anna more compassionate than we might have thought — though there’s really no chance of her honoring Ms. McMullen’s stipulation, in the script, that Anna is “never annoying.” This is a character with a big personality, and she will get on your nerves.
But Ms. Worsham deftly ensures that there’s nothing cloying or condescending to the Asperger’s elements of the play. Mr. Barker is remarkably magnetic, limning Charlie’s unease and yearning in a performance that allows him to be funny and sympathetic but never pitiful.
“People say you can’t teach empathy,” he tells Anna, “but I’m smarter than most people.”
And he wants to learn.
Through Sept. 29 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.