The Cheaters Club
Abrons Art Center
Twenty-six actors make up the cast of this play, a typical load for the Amoralists, for whom size counts, and consistency is a hard-won virtue. Derek Ahonen, the troupe’s resident playwright, both wrote and directed the company’s new joint (through September 21), and it can be safely said that he doesn’t take himself seriously. Usually when someone says that a creative work doesn’t take itself seriously, and they mean it as a compliment, I reach for my revolver. But in this case the playfulness is an asset.
The Cheaters Club runs for a sprawling 150 minutes, and they’re not all smooth. The Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side is a musty space that has always seemed to me redolent of a high school auditorium, mainly because the stage is so high and far away from the audience. Amoralists shows thrive on immediacy and the gut connection between spectator and going-for-broke actor, so this distance is a problem during the first act; the staging too often puts actors behind pieces of furniture when they’re already so far away from us. But this is such a resourceful group, with so much energy to spare, that they eventually overcome the hurdle and settle in to have their fun—and provide us with some, too.
Everybody on stage is clearly having a blast, and it’s easy just to catalog my favorite performances. As Vladimir Anton, who serves as narrator for the play, Zen Mansley is a delight from start to finish with his exaggerated ham-actor hauteur, his grand but muddy diction, and his sense of control and command. As an immodest singer, Kelley Swindall serves up full-on Teri Garr-in-Young Frankenstein flakiness and ass-wiggling sexuality, while Amoralist mainstay James Kautz enjoys doing a preposterous accent that veers from Irish to Scottish to Jamaican. Best of all, perhaps, is Ben Reno, who’s on stage for almost the whole play as a mysterious character known as Piano Man. Though he has only one line toward the end, Reno has clearly thought out a whole eccentric characterization that he signals to us when he isn’t playing the theme from Rosemary’s Baby on a piano.
Sarah Lemp outright stole the Amoralists’ production of The Bad and the Better, and in The Cheaters Club, she’s been given a large role as a fast-talking Southern belle that doesn’t always play to her strengths; the part seems to call for someone older, broader and hammier, but I’m sure Lemp will have more fun with it once she settles in (and doesn’t have to worry about remembering all the verbose speeches Ahonen has given her). What is The Cheaters Club about? It’s about a playwright feeling his oats and cooking up a spicy entertainment for his actor friends, maybe after binge-watching a season or two of American Horror Story.