The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Written and directed by Derek Ahonen
The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
erupts through a dusty layer of nostalgia. The stage is littered with crumbs, cans and bits of broken records seemingly from decades of nightly parties turned ugly. Two crinkly movie posters adorning the walls of the stuffy living room where Derek Ahonen's raucous comedy takes place convey the conflicted politics of those who live there: Easy Rider
's self-destructive, youthful, phallocentric idealism (the male leads are named after Dennis Hopper
and Peter Fonda's beloved characters), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
's vigilante revenge fantasy. Filth and clutter of various sorts cover every surface of the shoddy apartment, at least until a male character sends it flying in a fit of rage.
That's precisely how Pied Pipers
(through August 9) begins, with Wyatt (Matthew Pilieci) swatting empty beer cans off the coffee table as he yells at Billy (James Kautz) over some money, then a lottery ticket, and then some drugs. It's the middle of a summer heat wave in a cramped Lower East Side apartment above a vegan restaurant, and everyone's a little extra irritable (sound familiar?). Pilieci particularly, and the entire company in general, resorts to motormouthed shouting more often than needed, a mode of delivery that has become part of the fast-rising
company The Amoralists
. The overblown style keeps the energy level very high throughout the two and three-quarter-hours show, but undercuts some of its emotional force. The cast's tireless, polyamorous love and adoration, played out superbly between Billy, Wyatt, Dear (Sarah Lemp) and Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore), textures the unyielding force of the male characters' anger. But having someone other than Ahonen direct might help do fuller justice to his excellent writing.
About midway through act one, as the first of two visitors who will perturb this vegan restaurant-running, revolutionary rag-publishing, pan-sexual urban commune approaches, Billy pulls his cell phone from the coffee table rubble to direct his younger fratboy brother Evan (Nick Lawson) to their apartment at Ludlow and Stanton. The moment allays any uncertainties as to the play's period. These twenty-somethings are living out a generations-old fantasy of a countercultural lifestyle in the present, a temporal disjuncture driven home when Wyatt launches into an argument with Evan sounding like a cranky old man, "And that's the problem with you kids these days..." Later, Dear points out: "That's what everyone says about any generation other than their own."
In fact, with Pilieci screaming the majority of Wyatt's lines—which he admittedly pulls off in act two—and Kautz playing the lead in an overly affected manner, the ensemble's more muted members stand out. The superb Lemp articulates the group's would-be revolutionary ideals with greater conviction and clarity than her male co-stars, selling the audience on the household's radicalism before turning out to be as selfish as the rest. Lemp draws out our disappointment in Dear by delivering her messages of unyielding emotional honesty with deadpan earnestness. After Billy makes Dawn cry, Dear tells him flatly: "You caused it. Feel guilty now." Evan turns out to be another truth-speaker in this house of stale revolutionary sentiments, and Lawson brings the Midwestern jock around with superb subtlety and a greater sense of physical comedy than his endlessly explosive castmate—though all evidence excellent comic timing.
The second outsider, Donovan (Malcolm Madera), who's been funding the Pied Pipers' throwback commune and affordable vegan kitchen, comes sporting a fedora and popped-collar pink polo, bearing bad news. The yuppie entrepreneur tries to temper disaster with constant joking asides about dissatisfaction with his middle-class life—he offers to pay someone to murder his wife at least twenty times in two acts. The breakup of the alternative family that he's kicking out resonates more deeply than expected.
Within this microcosmic parable of gentrification, generational angst and abandoned idealism, the Amoralists construct a very loving, endearing household—the ensemble's committed physical affection overpowers the clunky clamoring of their arguments. Last-minute magical realism to do with Billy's religious awakening and guerilla activism detracts somewhat from Pied Pipers
' well-located and heartbreaking comedy of poly family life torn apart. Such unresolved problems only confirm the unstated purpose of this return engagement for last year's break-out hit: The Amoralists are getting very good, and they could become much, much better.
(photo credit: Larry Cobra)