Happy in the Poorhouse
(at Theater 80 through April 5) comes at a time in the city when many dreams have been shattered due to economic fallout and hard times. The production seems to ask, in a very roundabout way, what are we supposed to do now? The answer, given by the Amoralists
and playwright Derek Anohen, seems to be to dream; that sometimes having the dream, holding on to it, is even more important than achieving it. A sappy sentiment, yes, but one that can provide hope in desperate times, if one hasn't already been engulfed by the viscous new cynicism of a generation bathed in jaded irony. The problem with the world of Happy in the Poorhouse
is that the dreams of the characters sometimes get in the way of the happiness they could be experiencing. The play works on this basic level, asking the audience to pause and see what is good in their lives—family, love, friends—and there are moments that do provide a modicum of good cheer and hope, but the over-saturation of sitcom plotting, intended but only sometimes succeeding to produce laughs, clutters everything up and in the end eclipses whatever message the Amoralists were trying to convey.
The Amoralist's previous play, Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
, dealt with similar themes, though in a less poignant way: that show's slimy hippies taking over the tenements had dreams, but were happy in stasis with the life of a New York bohemian. In Poorhouse
, which deals primarily with an extended family in Coney Island, the characters want nothing more than to get out and make it in the wide world. They have been in New York too long to be enamored with its romantic appeal for artists. Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz) is Coney Island's Rocky Balboa, a mixed martial artist poised on the brink of maybe, possibly having a lucrative career. Paulie throws the words "I love you" like a punch or insult when cornered by his wife Mary (vampy, nasally, Sarah Lemp) who is sexually frustrated because Paulie's childhood memories have made him all but impotent.
The give-and-take between Paulie and Mary is volatile, violent and loud, which sets the tone and pace for the rest of the play. Mary screams and jabs, taking quick, tiny steps in too high heels and a little black dress while Paulie puts holes in the sheet rock wall stage left with his feet and fists. Despite all the carrying on it's clear that they do genuinely love each other. Paulie immediately tries to fix each hole he makes, and Mary cradles his head like a baby's in moments of vulnerability. Paulie is a patent optimist, believing against his age and talent that he still has a shot at the big time. He derides Mary for giving up on her acting career and not going to auditions, but it's all Mary can do just trying to hold their household together through the economic crisis. Paulie is so focused on his dreams that he's unable to see the loving wife in front of him who is ready to leave him because he won't consummate their marriage.
The rest of the play is complicated for the sake of being cutely convoluted, involving a cast of stock characters that doesn't do much to shore up Ahonen's playwrighting ability. A bit of the onus might be placed on the wonderful, yet here fundamentally incompatible talents of the Amoralists as they try to wrap their comedic antics around a quasi-serious drama. To wit: Paulie and Mary are throwing a party for Mary's ex-husband and Paulie's best friend Petie (William Apps), an Iraq veteran who rolls in Lieutenant Dan
-style with flamboyant, midriff-bearing Creole gay nurse Stevie (Nick Lawson). Obviously, the party goes awry. The guests include: a brother duo of fight promoters; a washed up hit-man; a pedophiliac mailman and his young conquest Flossie (Meghan Ritchie channeling Snookie); and Paulie's sister, a lesbian country singer with a Nazi lover. At one point the whole cast is screaming and rollicking round the stage in a very well-choreographed (not surprisingly, by Alfred Schatz) vaudevillian slapstick fight between Paulie and the wheelchair-bound Petie. The fight promoters try to film it, the hit man tries to stop it, the pedophiliac tries to escape it, the gay nurse encourages it, but in the end there is no point to any of this; nothing gets resolved.
Despite this haphazard rising action, the original message of trying to retain some hope despite hard times comes through again towards the play's end. In a moment of relative calm Paulie looks out at the audience smiling, bright-eyed, proclaiming in his own honest way, that despite all the hardship they face, he's happy in the poorhouse, because he's got his family, and he still has his dreams. The moment cuts through all the filler nicely, and clues the audience in to what is really at stake here—keeping a level head and not giving in to overwhelming cynicism and sadness no matter what happens in life and no matter how hard it gets. Even though this is hardly a new topic for Off-Off-Broadway theater, and this surely will not be the last of it, if the Amoralists and Anhonen keep up this pace, one wonders if they will be in the poorhouse for very much longer, and if they are truly happy there.
(photo credit: Larry Cobra)