The Cheaters Club is a legitimately scary ghost story which will make you laugh out loud a lot. This is a very difficult thing to pull off and The Amoralists do it flawlessly. Somehow Derek Ahonen, the playwright and director, manages to let the audience enjoy the silliness one minute and scare them the next (read: I screamed out loud at the end of Act 1). I think it works so well because he creates these outrageous characters and lets the humor be about their quirks, but the freaky situations are fully invested in.
This successful balancing act begins with the character of Vladimir Anton (played to a perfect pitch by Zen Mansley). Vladimir is a failed actor-turned-tour-guide for Savannah visitors (and the audience) who lays out Savannah’s reputation as the most haunted city in America. He vacillates easily between Vincent-Price-deathly-echoes and humorously peevish frustration which lets the audience know right away that in the world of this play tones can flip on a dime.
The basic plot is that three siblings from Queens and a friend have arrived in Savannah for their annual vacation together. They are all unhappy in their marriages so they call themselves The Cheater’s Club. Under the guise of sibling bonding they escape once a year from their spouses to get some immature, extra-marital misbehavior out of their systems. This time they stay at The Chaney Inn which is run by a grim widow and her three grown children and tended by a voodoo-practicing housekeeper. Ten years before the play begins the patriarch of the family and the parents of the housekeeper were mysteriously murdered. More unexplained disappearances naturally follow.
The humor comes from the characters who all broadly max out ridiculous stereotypes. The visiting siblings are loud, crass, foul-mouthed New Yorkers. The innkeeper’s daughter is a scantily clad lounge singer who wants to marry Vince Neil. Her brother, who tends the inn’s bar, is spooky-stoic and fiercely protective of the family’s secrets. The tux-wearing piano player at the bar, named “Piano Man”, is significant to both siblings but never speaks. There are two red-neck frat boys, a nun and a gaggle of floozy girls who float through the bar as well. There is naturally a lot of drunkenness, grave-digging and spirit summoning.
But somehow it all works. The funny parts are funny and the scary parts are scary and it never feels like a play suffering from split personality disorder. It’s more like a fun ride full of surprises. Part of the scare credit must be given to lighting designer Brad Peterson and sound designer Phil Carluzzo (who also wrote original music for the play). Their efforts worked beautifully together to give a sense of darkness, shock and dread. Also the actors of the huge cast were all equally adept at going over the top for comedic affect as they were at letting us in to their very real fear. Special mention must be made of Sarah Lemp who, as the innkeeper “Mama”, carries much of the play and keeps the plot moving swiftly by rattling off massive amounts of hilarious text in a yankee-scorning Georgian deadpan. Alfred Schatz’s gorgeous, versatile set allowed for quick transitions between moods and scenes.
So a ghost story that succeeds in being both funny and scary, that’s all a theatergoer needs, right? Ahonen goes beyond by not only giving us a good time but also a theme to think on. The Cheaters Club is really all about love. The horrific tragedies in the play are all born out of the hurt feelings and bad judgments of lovers who didn’t trust their partners with the truth. He’s saying if you don’t love anymore, then be respectful, be brave, and break up. Otherwise you could end up haunting a hotel until someone digs up your corpse to eat your finger in a voodoo rite.