Theatre audiences will need to start gauging how much playwrights (and all those involved in theatre) are deferring, consciously or unconsciously, to self-censorship, given the recent NSA spying, IRS targeting, and alleged CIA cover-up revelations. It may be a difficult evaluation–many playwrights really aren’t all that daring to begin with, relying on acceptable styles and liberal programming. We know, for example, that no one cares that it took the better part of a decade for an American play on the Iraq war to be brought to Broadway or that conservative voices are marginalized, if not virtually nonexistent in our nation’s theatre (in The Cheaters Club, it should be noted that there is, admirably, a right-wing rant by a lounge singer, played by Kelley Swindall). We also know that journalism, like Theatre, is abdicating more and more of its responsibility to the Entertainment mindset, leaving the heavy lifting to conglomerates in England or bloggers on the Web. Our politicians may, currently, be adding yet another to our endless wars in the Mideast, costing further lives and more money in a Recession, with little proof that it is necessary to our national interest. Who, however, will be willing to text, e-mail, or call, much less write a play, about what this has and will do to our national psyche?
Currently, artists have to estimate work done under a surveillance state. Did we clam up or become inconsequential, given the findings? Or were we emboldened? Since we hope the work will ultimately be public anyway, does it matter that the thoughts we went through on the way to completion can be known? I gave this idea consideration after attending a new work by the Amoralists, which was undoubtedly written before the Spring IRS exposures and Edward Snowden’s first interview in early June. Nevertheless, artists are bellweathers, predictors, opinion-makers, and beacons. That said, The Cheaters Club (now playing at the Abrons Arts Center until September 21) is a very different kettle of fish than Derek Ahonen’s last play, The Bad and the Better (2012), a work written about anarchists in a time when Occupy Wall Street was fresh in the mind. The new play is genre, it’s spoof-horror like Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family and The Munsters TV shows. To each his or her own, but this is the tamest, safest work this reviewer has seen from the Amoralists. Ahonen is, perhaps, just naturally mainstreaming, as he becomes older and more known. Perhaps he’s glad to give up the political edge for a while and delve into the phantasmagoric. We’re so used to his depictions of extreme New York lives and the clashes of their personal philosophies, though, that when he transplants them to Savannah, Georgia, as he does here, for a pulpy, weirded-out Brigadoon, we find him off balance—his New Yorkers seem too unsympathetic and “crass,” as Mama (Sarah Lemp) calls them—and she’s right. The Yankees are ready to exhaust their demons in a weekend of adultery and booze; the Southerners are their enablers who know that the spirit world is about to be unleashed. Unfortunately, they’re second-generation Xeroxes of enablers, reminiscent of Mrs. Venable, for example, in Suddenly, Last Summer or Big Daddy in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.
Ahonen himself is a playwright, director–he directed this piece–and an actor, who has played the landlord in his The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. It’s a showy part that keeps edging the play’s post-hippies to the ends of their ropes—whom he always pulls back with the line, “Just kidding.” The character is similar to the failed, hammy actor and tour leader, Vladimir (Zen Mansley), in The Cheaters Club: artistic, passionate, and, sometimes, cruel. The characters are showmen like Ahonenen himself—and this is what makes this playwright so different from solipsistic MFA writers. Ahonen’s more intrigued by the messy Ids of the actors he loves than structure or theme or focus or length (The Cheaters Club runs more than two hours and thirty minutes) or any of the other technical issues people keep meaning to tell him about. The only problem is that there is so much real dynamic energy to what he is doing, and the way that he is doing it, that we forgive his camp and nostalgia (often for ‘60s causes, virtually every television sitcom since the Honeymooners, and, overdone here, for the Romance of the South). There is so much excess that that can be a statement in itself (for example, there are 26 characters in this play—many Amoralist regulars–and two endings). To think of his work too academically, therefore, would be like telling a van Gogh that he doesn’t know how to draw stars. Nevertheless, I would say that the inner conflicts of the characters in The Cheater’s Club don’t “read” very well—in fact, we don’t see anybody cheating.
Ultimately, rescued by more sympathetic New Yorkers—stereotypical, but whose wiring is more understandable–we get the Amoralist vibe and tribe we recognize (Vanessa Vache, Wade Dunham, James Kautz, and Anna Stromberg). In this monster of a play, in which the dramatist has delved into lore and history and new physical landscapes (which might continue to draw him back to the premise), their stage time actually seems short—of course, they’re the metropolitan area nut jobs we’ve been waiting for. No one plays “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” during The Cheaters Club. No one wants to undermine the status quo. There is no nudity in this show (actually there hasn’t been in the last two, just saying). Some of us will recall Matthew Pilieci bursting out of a shower with an erection in The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side—apparently, the idea was not part of the original script, but was cooked up during a rehearsal. I hope it wasn’t texted.
Visit the Amoralists at: http://amoralists.com/2013-season-1/
© 2013 by Bob Shuman. All right reserved.