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Review: In ‘Georgia Mertching Is Dead,’ a Road Trip Takes Detours

A messy play about clean and sober women, Catya McMullen’sGeorgia Mertching Is Dead,” at Ensemble Studio Theater, sends former addicts on a road trip to bury a fallen friend. Its three heroines are already busy navigating adulthood after bungling adolescence big time. Of course they get a little lost along the way.

Emma, Whitney and Gretchen, now 30ish, met as troubled teenagers and have sustained one another through 15 years of recovery. They’re surviving, occasionally thriving, though the play helpfully assigns them assorted conflicts. Emma (Claire Siebers), a successful novelist, has entered treatment for a love and sex addiction. Whitney (Layla Khoshnoudi), a chef, struggles to advance at her catering company. Gretchen (Diana Oh), pregnant with her second child and apparently devoid of interest or vocation beyond family and hemorrhoids, may or may not want to move to Connecticut. When they learn that a peer has hanged herself, they drive from New York City to rural North Carolina so that Gretchen can deliver a eulogy.

Another playwright might have begun this story earlier, when the women’s lives edged closer to risk and terror. Here is Gretchen, describing herself at 16: “My hair was purple but in splotches. I had Cheetos in my braces, was wearing bright orange combat boots held together with electrical tape. I hadn’t showered in a week and the side of my head was bleeding. I couldn’t remember why. And I was mean. Really, really mean.”

That’s a girl I wouldn’t mind meeting onstage, but the play insists — honorably, frantically — that these women are more than their addictions, that a tenuously sober adulthood should compel us as much or more than a reckless youth. At least I think that’s the argument. A memory play, a friendship play, a delayed coming-of-age drama and briefly a romantic comedy with at least one raunchy graveyard sex scene, its internal GPS keeps recalculating. (That said, Gretchen’s near-term belly is the Chekhov’s gun here, so the final destination doesn’t take much guessing.)

“Georgia Mertching is Dead,” directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is the latest play from Youngblood, a prestigious writing group for early career playwrights. A lot of Youngblood plays can feel unfinished; this is one of them. It traffics, superficially, in realism, though the budget sets, lighting and costumes are only vaguely verisimilar. And McMullen’s voice — brash, loud — stipulates a funkier style. The scenes keep spilling over and out, mostly via butt jokes. Built to induce shock rather than absorb it, the dialogue is smart about human behavior only a little more often than it is dumb.

Ostensibly a play about complicated women, its characters can veer toward caricature, particularly when Khoshnoudi accentuates Whitney’s daffy winsomeness and Oh, also a playwright, stresses Gretchen’s over-the-top tendencies. (A typical Gretchen line: “A man stopped me on the subway last week and told me he’d pay me $5,000 to lactate in his mouth when the time came so mama’s still got it.”)

But Siebers grounds Emma’s acerbity and self-hatred and spectacularly poor impulse control in ways that feel recognizable and real. She also has the play’s key line — which most of us, grown or not, sober or otherwise, on the road or safe in our seats, can relate to: “I’m exhausted by the amount of work it takes for me to be a normal person every day.”

Georgia Mertching Is Dead
Through Oct. 27 at Ensemble Studio Theater, Manhattan; ensemblestudiotheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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