By Bob Shuman
In the movie Alien (1979), John Hurt is killed when his chest explodes. For those who do not know it’s coming—and maybe if they do–the scene can disorient. Matt Pilieci, an Amoralist, could be dislocating, too–in The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (2009), he ran out of the shower, onto the stage with a hard-on, followed by two jovial women. Off-off-Broadway crossed a line there, whether good or bad: Derek Ahonen’s play didn’t always jibe, but his East Village was dirty, gritty, and vital—and he could confuse and disrupt. The plays that followed were off-the-presses hot, and they could reflect working-class concerns during the economically slow Obama years, as well as ‘60s idealism and trash culture. The Amoralists are back now at the Rattlestick, until March 18, with a play by Ken Urban called Nibbler, but the show is a reverie on the spring semester of high school, when students are goofing off and waiting for late acceptances. Lost are the raw, coarse emotional outbursts of the troupe—and its underground vibe–replaced with a white, middle-class defense of higher education.
Apparently, Ahonen went off to make a movie (he may also have been burned-out)—and Matt Pilieci found less casting with the group. Of the original three founders, only James Kautz is part of the new show. He’s chipmunk-cheeked here, playing a kid who realizes he’s not going on to bigger and better things after graduation. Kautz is probably as good here as he has ever been, and he has been very good before. He is embarrassingly old for the part, almost a Lothario, but he has a pro’s aura: watch as he tries to wipe semen off his hand without a towel, after a masturbation scene (students may want to learn a different acting lesson, but there’s an acting lesson in it). The new writer, Ken Urban, dramatizes the upwardly mobile in South Jersey, who have a different social nomenclature than those in Ahonen’s boroughs and blue-collar burgs. The Amoralist shows, in the past, proudly represented the underclass—it was their culture that Ahonen was prizing, perhaps comparable to the way Shelagh Delaney wrote about working-class Manchester. Urban, however, has written a drama about add-on elements to legitimize his interest in nostalgia–such as the sci-fi subplot and the beating off. He can’t speak for the working poor, those screwed by the government, or the merely dissolute. Although he actually puts a clunky alien onstage, one doesn’t burst from the gut—and that was what Ahonen could do. Even if he didn’t know who he was hitting or where that rage was going, underneath he wanted class protest. A young woman (Elizabeth Lail), who works at a sex hotline, might have fit in perfectly in one of Ahonen’s plays, but here the role isn’t fleshed out. Her boyfriend is only a type, the young business major (Spencer Davis Milford). Urban can goose up his work with Amoralist trademarks, such as nudity and sex and dumbed-down conversations and characters, but, ultimately, he feels sorry for the ones who don’t make it. He doesn’t love or champion them, as is.
Nibbler is a roomy play that could use more purpose and tension. Really, it’s the same high school story about the fears of going off to college that actual students write when they’re still living it—but they can tell it with innocence. Urban can’t find the drama of a Spring Awakening or Splendor in the Grass or Grease, much less Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, because everyone in his world is on the same side. His point of view is schoolmarmish, if not elitist—get into Stanford, Trenton State isn’t good enough; those who don’t attend will be behaviorally delayed. Tell that to Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, David Green, Nancy Sinatra, Larry Ellison, or Rachael Ray. Nibbler can be offensive to those who don’t go to college—as well as those who do–because people are not retarded in their growth just because they don’t go. College admissions departments are very fallible—there is no need to flatter petty bureaucrats at the expense of contemporary drama.
Sean Patrick Monahan gets to stand around naked, like so many Amoralist actors have before: in one section of Hotel/Motel, by Adam Rapp, the action included naked men walking around the theatre in circles, in slow motion. It was like not having towels in a locker room. Monahan, who might have been given more blocking (the director is Benjamin Kamine), is an interesting actor, because he comes out to us as gay, subtly. He’s non-differentiated sexually at the start—he doesn’t drop any overt hints. Perhaps this is a portrayal to notice, one of the few of youth in the closet. Rachel Franco plays the smart girl of the group well, according to the role’s parameters—but, Urban doesn’t make her seem especially singular, and her counterpart in Merrily We Roll Along is more conflicted. Matthew Lawler plays the cop, a character who wouldn’t be given much sympathy in previous Amoralist shows. Here, he is all but a tragic hero—and he is quite good in a graying, balding, vulnerable way. But the audience also must accept Urban’s bias: that cops should be unsatisfied with being cops. Too many, in the theatre, believe that the only real occupations to aspire to are being writers or artists—but don’t those in such jobs, statistically, tend to end up being the real underemployed workers?
Is college really worth it, considering the time and expense and debt? The creators of Nibbler barely raise the subjects, perhaps because their pathways to production may not directly include blue-collar or unsubsidized points of view. Some argue that the last election was a shock because the working-class vote was misunderstood. Theatre needs to be wary, too, in how it portrays and understands its characters–and also when complaining of a lack of audience. The creators may be reflecting themselves back in the work–or outmoded or hackneyed assumptions, not society.
Recently, at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT), actors in Department of Fools–who are closer to the age of high school students–improvised a show called A History of Servitude. Masked, they portrayed and named great events in history, from Ancient Greece and Egypt to imaginary ones like Elon Musk’s proposed space travel. As their foundations become established, will they be lucky enough to find a playwright to consistently knock out material and let the group retain authenticity? For the Amoralists 2017, the most important work seems past-tense. Like seeing today’s East Village, it’s a gentrification job. That may actually sound impossible for this group—just about as improbable as believing that there can be beings from outer space.
KEN URBAN’S NIBBLER, DIRECTED BY BENJAMIN KAMINE
Cast: Rachel Franco, James Kautz, Elizabeth Lail, Matthew Lawler, Spencer Davis Milford and Sean Patrick Monahan
The design team includes Anshuman Bhatia (Scenic Design), Christian Frederickson (Sound Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Lux Haac (Costume Design), Stefano Brancato (Puppet Design), Ken Urban (Original Music), Alex J. Gould (Fight Choreography), Zach Serafin (Prop Design) and Alfred Schatz (Artistic Charge).
The production team includes Whitney Dearden (Production Stage Manager), Jeremy Duncan Pape (Production Manager), Jeremy Stoller (Dramaturg), Lico Whitfield (Lead Producer), Jessica Kazamel (Associate Producer), Alexandra Campos (Associate Producer), Dana Libbey (Assistant Stage Manager) and Judy Bowman CSA (Casting).
Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm with added shows on Sunday 2/26 at 8pm, Monday 2/27 at 8pm, Sunday 3/12 at 2pm and Wednesday 3/15 at 8pm. Tickets are $31 and $16 for students (1 ticket limit with code STU1992, valid ID must be presented at box office), and can be purchased at http://www.Amoralists.com or by calling 1-866-811-4111. The show contains nudity. Running time is 95 minutes. Post-show panels follow select performances – check website for details. For more info visit http://www.Amoralists.com, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/TheAmoralists, and follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheAmoralists and Instagram at https://www.Instagram.com/TheAmoralists.
© 2017 by Bob Shuman. All Rights Reserved.
Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity
Nibbler photographer: Russ Rowland.
From top to bottom: James Kautz as Adam, Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete, Rachel Franco as Tara
James Kautz as Adam, Rachel Franco as Tara
Matthew Lawler as Officer Dan, Rachel Franco as Tara
Ken Urban photo: Soho Rep
Kautz, Pilieci, Ahonen: New York Times.