The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 5, 2007
The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, written and directed by Derek Ahonen and presented by The Amoralists, is the most exciting theatre I've seen in quite a while; its adventurousness, its fearlessness, and its wide-ranging embrace of a potpourri of important and challenging subjects mark it as something special—the kind of work that makes theatre-going the uniquely vital experience that, at its best, it can be. I love this show's balance of intelligent introspection and gutsy in-your-face extroversion of the most outrageous kind: The Pied Pipers is a play where three of its characters are on stage buck naked for a seriously long time in Act One, and then those same characters ponder, in earnest, some of the most significant questions of our age in Act Two. It's a jolt of energy, right when (and where) we need it.
It takes place in an apartment on Stanton and Ludlow Streets during a severe summer heat wave. The residents of this apartment are Dear, Wyatt, Billy, and Dawn, four very close friends who live together in what they call an extended sexual family (sometimes, hearkening back to the '60s, they refer to themselves as a tribe). What this means is that they care for and love each other: they have sex in all the possible combinations that four people can, and they put up with (and enable, and try to fix) one another's quirks and problems and obsessions.
Dear and Wyatt run the vegan restaurant on the first floor of their building (called The Pied Pipers); in exchange for this labor, the restaurant's owner, Donovan, gives them the place rent-free as well as their food. Billy is an anarchist and journalist who runs his own controversial newspaper and is spearheading some kind of anti-government demonstration in Mexico. Dawn is a young woman who came to the tribe as a teenage runaway a few years ago; she earns cash by singing '60s rock songs on the street. Together they comprise a kind of commune, albeit a compact one, with all four contributing something necessary to the household and sharing in their modest but sufficient collective resources.
Ahonen is not afraid to show us that these seemingly dewy-eyed idealists (to cop a phrase from Oscar Hammerstein) are also rather subtle hypocrites: from the art hanging on the walls to Billy's wanton drug habit to Wyatt's love for lottery tickets, the cracks in their ideology are readily apparent. The playwright skillfully introduces two outsiders into their world to test them, first Billy's "normal" brother Evan, a frat boy visiting his estranged brother in the Big City for vacation; and then, perhaps more bracingly, Donovan, the philanthropist landlord for whom the tribe's earnest efforts to change their world a little bit at a time may not amount to anything more significant than an overgrown rich kid's game.
The first two acts of The Pied Pipers are structured cannily: Act One basically gets our attention by introducing the tribe's free-loving living arrangement and their ideals, and by providing a deliciously conventional theatrical setup—the arrival of square, naive Evan—to set off the first of the play's explosions. (Evan's arrival is the centerpiece of Act One and it's smart and hilarious and unforgettable, as long as you don't get squeamish about all the nakedness on stage.) And then in Act Two, our attention having been gotten, Ahonen probes the important subject of how a person can live in accordance with their ideals in a world where that seems impossible; the debate here is compelling and authentic and smartly not one-sided.
And then comes the real explosion, which won't be disclosed here, and a conclusion of cosmic proportion that I certainly did not see coming.
The writing here is uneven but always interesting. Some of the characters are less well-developed than others; Dear, in particular—a one-time lawyer who is now the "brains" of the tribe (and also, perhaps, its conscience)—feels underwritten, and I wanted to know more about how she ended up here and where she had been before. Ahonen is trying to accomplish more here than one play can accommodate. But the sheer scope of this piece—touching on religion, environmentalism, economics, anarchy, vegetarianism, sexuality, and much more—makes it endlessly admirable, as does its willingness to look at controversial subject matter frankly and uncompromisingly.
Ahonen's production is thoroughly professional, and though the play runs nearly three hours, it never drags and constantly keeps us riveted. The design is exemplary, especially the richly detailed apartment set by Matthew Pilieci and the evocative sound design by Bart Lucas. The six actors give bold, thoughtful performances: Tom Bain (Donovan) and Nick Lawson (Evan) have less to do than the others, while Sarah Fraunfelder (Dear), James Kautz (Billy; also the show's producer), and especially Helena Lee (Dawn) and Pilieci (Wyatt) create sympathetic, compelling, three-dimensional characters whom we come to care about and understand.
These characters are all about challenging the status quo—and not just challenging it, but trying to improve it. They may feel quixotic, but Ahonen and The Amoralists definitely do not: they are making theatre here that really does have the capacity to lead their audience toward some meaningful social change. This is a raw, potent, visceral work that's never sensational or gratuitous (though it could be): this is a play that means what it says and says what it means, and is never afraid to put its metaphorical money where its mouth is. How I respect that; and how I look forward to whatever these folks come up with next.