nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 20, 2008
The thing that I love about The Amoralists is that they are unafraid to tackle big issues in their work—in fact, they thrive on tackling issues, the more the better. Amerissiah, their current endeavor, written and directed by Derek Ahonen, looks at (among other things) corporate greed, faux liberalism, drugs and addiction, and religion. Ahonen's play is at its best balancing dichotomies: a young woman lamely attempting to recover from drug dependency pitted against an older woman who's an ex-hippie who is medicating her cancer-ridden husband with marijuana, for example; or a devout Christian attorney fighting about family values with his non-believer wife, who is an embezzler. The situations and characters in Amerissiah are appalling and over-the-top and funny and often startlingly convincing; they reflect back aspects of ourselves in a kind of funhouse mirror—the best kind of theatricality.
These are not people we want to spend a great deal of time with, however. The action of Amerissiah takes place in a Marble Hill, Bronx apartment where Barry Ricewater and his much older wife Margi have just moved in (they're still unpacking boxes, in fact)—it's the same apartment where Barry was born, 30-odd years ago, when his parents were young, striving, lower-middle-class types. Barry has come here because he is dying of bone cancer and wants to end his life where it began. Margi, a flower child with purpose and perhaps even a dangerous m.o., is shepherding him through his final days. Barry, by the way, thinks he's God.
Barry's entire family will visit him during the long evening of the play's events. First to arrive is Holly, his sister, who is VERY TENSE because she and her father are facing serious jail time for some criminal activity they committed in their used car business (stuff like not paying employees' insurance contributions to the insurance company). Holly's ex-husband Bernie turns up as well; he's a lawyer, and despite their differences he intends to help Holly with her case. He's not so confident that he will save the family patriarch Johnny from prison, however. Holly and Barry's other brother Ricky visits too, with his current girlfriend Loni (the addict mentioned in paragraph one).
Ahonen sets up all the complex subplots and squabbles that define this preternaturally dysfunctional family in a first act that's bitterly funny in the manner of Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts (though laced throughout with Ahonen's trademark social consciousness, which distinguishes this young playwright from his antecedents). It's compelling, but you're not sure where it's going. And then, just as the first act curtain is about to drop on a scene of cacophonous chaos, two strangers are introduced—a couple from the American Heartland (Missouri) named Terry and Carrie Murphy. And the stakes are instantly raised.
I will not, however, tell you anything more. The Murphys' presence in the story is not just energizing but downright essential, putting many of the conflicts Ahonen has posed into sharp perspective.
Amerissiah is directed in the Amoralists' usual rowdy, raw style: there's lots of screaming and shouting and throwing things and even some gratuitously gross bathroom humor (and the script itself, like Ahonen's previous The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, could benefit from some editing). But there's method in this troupe's madness, and the show is never less than entertaining and frequently riveting. Ahonen and his actors make sure that the sensational aspects of their work leave room for the serious topics they're investigating, which is why this show, like the rest of their oeuvre, provokes thought as well as more visceral reactions.
Jennifer Fouche as Carrie Murphy gives a remarkable performance that ultimately anchors the play. James Kautz as her manic husband Terry is a lot of fun, as are Nancy Clarkson and Matthew Pilieci as the battling Holly and Bernie. Selene Beretta gives a well-considered turn as the badly damaged Loni, while Dierdre Brennan offers stark contrast as calm, collected Margi.
Interestingly the final takeaway from the play is about Margi: the thing Ahonen seems to trust least in this story is the possibly hypocritical, potentially dangerous permissiveness of the hippie generation. I was surprised by that, but nothing really should surprise us about the Amoralists' work. Their fearlessness is impressive, as is their range.