NEW YORK -- The sweetest space cadet you'll ever meet is Miriam, the spunky heroine of a warm-hearted new play, "7th Monarch." The intriguing drama by Jim Henry, detailing several mysteries surrounding once-promising math whiz Miriam, is currently running in a compelling, finely-acted production off-Broadway at Theatre Row.
We first see Miriam (a remarkable, touching performance by Gretchen Hall) wearing her personal space helmet, dedicating a time capsule to her missing parents on a cliff in the middle of the night. In her early thirties, she's friendly, personable and sharp-witted, although oddly childlike and disconnected, with terrible social skills.
Miriam is accused of fraud by a Social Security office criminal investigator, Raina, (Leslie Hendrix, stern, yet not unsympathetic), for signing her missing parents' government checks during the past few months. Due to circumstantial evidence, she's soon also suspected of murdering her parents, whose disappearance she bafflingly explains as, "The stars went into their mouths and into their lungs and they went away in the comet."
Hall's performance is authentic, appealing and poignant. Her Miriam is quirky, bubbly and often very funny, even when things are definitely not going well for her. Investigators are surprised to learn she has a photographic memory and an astoundingly high IQ, and was considered a promising mathematical genius until she abruptly left college during her junior year.
The three law enforcement officials who enter her life and will decide her fate may sound stereotypical, but Henry gives them subtle personality quirks. Matthew Humphreys plays frustrated public defender Grey Collins with compassionate decency. Michael Cullen is very effective as weary, honest police detective Leo Garnes, just trying to make it to his imminent retirement. Complicating matters, the potential murder charge is eagerly seized on as a campaign boost by a self-impressed politician aptly named Sharpe (a crisp portrayal by Michael Rupert).
Director Scott C. Embler brings out the humor in Henry's writing. Despite some trite dialogue, procedural inaccuracies and the unlikely presence of cellphones in this 1991 setting, the mysteries and the relationship between the two women are intriguing enough to sustain the play. Scenes with Hendrix and Hall gradually drawing long-repressed secrets from one another are quite affecting, despite some melodramatic tinges.
Embler nicely stages overlapping scenes at multiple locations around Miriam's small Indiana town on the single set, efficiently designed by Shoko Kambara. "7th Monarch" leaves behind some lovely mental images, with celestial references creating apt parallels to Miriam's free-spirited, far-reaching mind.