The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Anyone with an appreciation for raucous comedy, polemical drama and very kinetic actors will spend the next 48 hours either jockeying for a seat to "The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side," or lamenting the fact that they missed it. A 2009 hit for downtown troupe The Amoralists, this marathon of decibel-level daring has been revived for one week only.
For a city in which once-novel mainstays like "Stomp" and "Blue Man Group" may as well co-sign the mortgages for the buildings they occupy, one hopes that this very engaging new play about Occupy-worthy bohemians will consider squatting for a good while longer. Not for children being raised outside a commune, everyone else will find something to like or laugh at.
Centered around four free, sexy, swapping spirits who run a vegan restaurant in exchange for a grungy-but-gratis apartment upstairs, the play vacillates between embracing and parodying the ideals of our protagonists. They are crusaders for a rather abstract idea of justice and a very personalized definition of love. The group’s collective(ist) philosophy is expounded in three acts, each of which has a subtly different tone.
The first smacks of a sly bit of sitcom, as the quickly established characters prepare for a visit from a Midwestern sibling. This collision of suburban mouse vs. subculture mouse unfolds in a very predictable, but no less uproarious way. But the act wraps up with a rather pat heart-to-heart that seems to drop in out of nowhere. The scene quite honestly begs for some light and breezy muzak designed to conjure up Rose, Dorothy, Blanche and a cheesecake.
After the first of two intermissions, the foursome is prompted to find their soapboxes, and what follows plays like the sort of thing Bernard Shaw might have written had he sported a nipple ring under his waistcoat. What would sound like dense chunks of telephone book stammering from the mouths of lesser actors rolls organically from the lips of The Amoralists as they make the language their own. The final act dips a toe ring into the slightly ethereal, and employs faintly absurdist devices by banishing the pipers while at the same time forbidding them to leave.
Whether playwright Derek Ahonen intended to pay any sort of homage to these three genres is doubtful. But if "The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side" is typical of his work, then he is a talent to watch. Obviously gifted as author and director of the piece, he’s also no slouch in the acting department. His Donovan, the quartet’s self-described "sleazy uncle" and trust fund sugar daddy, proves that sometimes true believers get that way by stringing up their disbelief in order to suspend it.
All the actors are terrific. Each has a fine-tuned comic sense, though the men seem to have been given more room for audacity. But the women don’t scamper from anything, and lean into every jocular gust like a couple of mimes walking against the wind. That’s not to say the drama gets lost in the laughs. The characters emerge early on as pretty damaged people, and their complexities get their due. They just leave out the eye-rolling headaches often induced by the self-righteous. The incessant screaming and slamming of doors might require an aspirin or two, but this is a minor quibble given how quickly The Amoralists burn through three hours.
It’s not an insult to observe that James Kautz, as radical journalist Billy, reminds us why Michael Keaton was once so popular. With a quirky tendency to physicalize even the punctuation marks in his lines, he is the epitome of the charismatic but corrosive young man. Matthew Pilieci lends a more open and vulnerable quality to best friend, lover and veritable brother Wyatt, and it elevates him from the role of indefatigable comic foil.
As Dear, Sarah Lemp plays the most relatable character, and that makes her all the more enigmatic. Intellectually superior and more emotionally grounded than the others, we wonder how she got here and why she stays. But she is always a welcome presence, injecting a dose of comparative sanity.
As for 19-year-old Dawn, we can’t feel entirely glad that this abused waif has fallen in with this crowd, innocuous as they may be to anyone who doesn’t have to live with them. Katie Broad gives us a wounded animal that has no idea why she’s bleeding.
And Nick Lawson, as Billy’s actual kid brother, gives a pitch perfect performance as a smug and boorish undergrad that nonetheless packs formidable forensic skill. If he would raise his volume to match the perfection of his pitch, then his performance would be flawless.
For all the individual contributions evident, there is a very potent chemistry that pops nonstop when you consider the company as a whole. That seems to be the way The Amoralists like it, and it’s a fair bet that audiences will feel the same.
"The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side" runs until September 2 at 9th Space, 150 First Avenue in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.followthepiedpipers.com.