Review: Happy in the Poorhouse

There is an inherent danger in plays written by actors, that the soliloquy will take precedence over dramatic subtlety, that the playwright will abuse the audience with too much conflict instead of allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Derek Ahonen’s latest offering from The Amoralists, Happy in the Poorhouse, comes as close as they have come thus far to overcoming this.

The Amoralists, founded in 2006 by a trio of conservatory classmates, claims to be “A theatre company that produces work of no moral judgment…Dedicated to an honest expression of the American condition.” From these ambiguous claims, this “actor driven ensemble” has garnered considerable critical attention in its past few seasons with original works such as Amerissiah, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, and Happy in the Poorhouse, now playing an extended Off-Broadway run at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s. This extremely promising young company benefits from Ahonen’s witty, original writing and the tight chemistry of talented performers, but suffers from, among other things, over-ambition and terrible poster art. Seriously, the poster tells you nothing except that they are in Coney Island and that someone’s girlfriend is a graphic designer. Marketing issues aside, Happy in the Poorhouse is a showcase of the troupe’s best qualities and an exciting addition to the Off-Broadway world.

Set in a high-volume Coney Island household, this two-hour-and-change comedy follows ageing amateur fighter Paulie “The Pug” and his family through a single evening, during which dreams are re-examined, marriages are tested and lives hang in the balance. We open on a scene of expectation: Paulie’s childhood friend Petie is returning from Afghanistan, a banner hangs over the stage reading “Welcome Back From Over There.” Paulie’s sister is due back from chasing her dream of Country music stardom in Nashville, bringing a surprise visitor. But there are many more homecomings and surprises in store.

James Kautz, a founding Amoralists member who has brought his cute manic energy to myriad Ahonen creations, holds his own as Paulie. He limps around the set, sporadically dressed, alternately punching holes in walls and patching them up. His “I love you”s barked to his frantic wife throughout the first scene give us a taste of the kind of affection we will be bludgeoned with for the coming 120 minutes. For those who have partaken of the company’s earlier pieces, one gets a sense of déjà vu right off the bat, as Ahonen seems to have an affinity for putting a half-naked, heavily bandaged men ranting on sofas in the middle of the stage for large swathes of the action and for women tottering around their apartments in ridiculous shoes.

Sarah Lemp gives a skillful performance as Paulie’s sex-starved wife Mary, a character that could easily be played with the shrew-factor cranked to eleven. Lemp’s Mary is nuanced and sympathetic despite the teensy polka dot tube dress and unlikely red stilettos that – I’m sorry Derek – no woman, no matter how proud, would wear around her own kitchen. Matthew Pilieci is hilarious as Paulie’s brother-in-law, a lothario mailman with questionable ethics, as is William Apps as the long-awaited Petie, subtly sociopathic and unsettlingly sexy.

It is very tempting—but ultimately difficult—to hate Happy in the Poorhouse. The shouting is incessant and the Eye-talian schtick is laid on so thick at times that it seems a goombah version of a blackface show. As characters pile in and subplots tangle, you begin to worry if the set will collapse and take the plot with it. But what holds this possibly migraine-inducing festival of nasal yelling together is the author’s careful suffusion of love and the players’ obvious enthusiasm for the work. The affection between characters brings redemption in the unlikeliest places and reels the audience, somewhat unwillingly, deep into this circle of this family’s drama. We root for them because they are rooting for each other. Unlike Amerissiah and to a lesser degree The Pied Pipers, the energy does not wane, culminating in a fantastically choreographed and executed fight scene. Is this pristine composition? Hardly. Is it, as the Amoralists’ website claims, “Rollicking, rebellious, and raw” and thoroughly fun to watch? Absolutely.

Happy in the Poorhouse, Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, 80 St. Mark’s Place at 1st Avenue, http://www.theatre80.org. Extended to April 26.

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