Coney's Roller-Coaster Farce 

Happy in the Poorhouse
Written and directed by Derek Ahonen

The problem that precipitates Happy in the Poorhouse's pile-up of pissed off larger-than-life personalities underlines the whole extended family farce, but never gets resolved. As a result, the Amoralists' follow-up to their break-out hit Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is at once more enjoyable and less satisfying than that endearing tragedy of festering radicalism. In Poorhouse (through August 23), Paulie's (James Kautz) inability to make love to his wife Mary (Sarah Lemp, stealing the show again) extenuates their stress over the return of the former's best friend and the latter's ex-husband Petie (William Apps) from Afghanistan. Paulie's success as an almost-pro cage-fighter seems at odds with his marital impotence, violence so often being a coded indicator of sexual potency in such generic exercises. Under pressure to consummate their eight-months-old marriage, he responds to his yearning wife with infantile and incomprehensible platitudes: "You smell like a baby duck kissing my heart." As he compulsively punches holes in the walls of the Coney Island apartment he shares with Mary and her postman brother Joey (Matthew Pilieci), his increasingly desperate spouse screams, pointing at her crotch: "Those holes don't make you a man, this one does!"

The root of Paulie's penile prudishness remains unexposed, though every other comical variation on a stock character who comes barging into the perfectly tacky living room set is eventually uncovered, untangled and dispatched. The large ensemble includes the aforementioned paraplegic Afghanistan vet and his sassy gay nurse Stevie (Nick Lawson), Paulie's country music star-on-the-brink younger sister Penny (Rochelle Mikulich), her Strangelove-like girlfriend Olga (Carmel Amit), pathetic and polyester-clad brothers Sonny and Sally (Morton Matthews and Mark Riccadonna), their niece Flossie (Meghan Ritchie) and family friend Larry (Leal Vona), gradually filling the stage until, immediately after intermission, a cyclone of disproportionate rage seems to be tearing the apartment to pieces (fight choreographer and set designer Al Schatz almost has his scenery torn to shreds).

The parade of more-or-less hilarious characters—Pilieci, too big in the subtler Pied Pipers, nails his overblown and blustering mailman; Mikulich and Amit, as the oddest couple among many, can't quite keep up the ferocious ensemble dynamic—affords almost no gaps between laughs. But the in-your-face farce maintains an emotional distance that Pied Pipers often collapsed, bringing us into the drama rather than presenting the story as a sitcom-like spectacle. Though Lemp still manages precious moments of calm grief, stuck between an impotent but loving husband and her sexually fulfilling but abusive ex, the stakes are much lower in Poorhouse. Ahonen takes up the same conflict between lofty ambitions and everyday duties, but here both become jokes. Or, as Paulie concludes with triumphant earnestness after telling his sister how their parents really died: "If you don't follow your dreams you get eaten by sharks." But what exactly keeps Paulie from reaching his dreams, whether in the cage or the bedroom, remains unclear. When he eventually overcomes his fears, the transcendent moments plays for laughs rather than release. Where Ahonen acknowledged the absurdity of the troupe's aesthetic with disarming flashes of realism throughout Pied Pipers, here he hardly ever textures the farce with tangible motives or human-scale emotions.

Still, Poorhouse escalates the compelling mixture of all-out recklessness and clumsy staginess that makes an Amoralists show so much more satisfying than many of their Downtown peers. On the one hand, characters are verily inhabited in all their exaggerated mannerisms, movements, accents and prejudices. The performers are unrelenting, making their characters all the more irresistible. But the aesthetic is spartan, with virtually no lighting cues, a handful of ringtones, no set changes, just a messy mass of props—a staple gun, a butcher knife, a bucket full of spackle for the holes Kautz really punches in the wall every night. The ensemble's phenomenal intensity and Ahonen's skillful writing make even less passionate outings like Poorhouse exceedingly enjoyable. One just hopes that as the Amoralists continue to accrue clout and cred, they don't remain like Paulie, content with life in the poorhouse.

(photo credit: Larry Cobra)

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