Theater Review: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

A chaotic apartment: dented beer cans, assorted musical instruments, dirty walls, kitschy objects strewn about. Another play about angsty twenty-somethings trying to decide what to do with their lives? Look again: the revolutionary banners and scrawled slogans add up to more than the stuff of typical college-age rebelliousness. So: a play about 1960s radicals? Look (and listen) yet again: it's 2009, iPods are everywhere, Barack Obama is President, and this is a play by the Amoralists. Hackneyed convention is not on the menu.

At the center of the tale is a reverse-Prodigal Son story. Billy (James Kautz), a drug-addicted revolutionary and the emotional focal point of an anarchic sexual foursome, receives a visit from his straight-arrow younger brother Evan (Nick Lawson). Though Billy is the one who is estranged from his family, Evan's manic, hilarious frat-boy wiggerspeak is as bizarre and incomprehensible to Billy's tribe as the group's four-way "marriage" and off-the-economic-grid lifestyle are to him and the outside world. pied pipers But Evan quickly forms an attachment to Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore), the newest, youngest, and most honest member of the foursome. And when bad news arrives in Act Three, wrenching complications ensue.

Playwright Derek Ahonen has a finely tuned ear for the way his Communist-Anarchist-Environmentalist heroes and heroines talk. The play skewers their free-love and pop-psychology platitudes, while loving the characters to death at the same time. I say "the play" because while Mr. Ahonen may be responsible for the dialogue, the Amoralists truly are, as their mission statement proclaims, an "actor driven" company. It feels as if these actors were born to play these parts. The play is a perfect whole — not for a second is the theatrical spell broken.  And somehow the political and moral message survives all the mockery.

Matt Pilieci, who plays the volcanic, hyper-vital yet death-obsessed Wyatt, and Mr. Kautz are reprising their roles from the 2007 production. The impish Ms. Moore isn't, but she is just as perfectly locked into her role, and the same is true of the darkly focused Sarah Lemp, who plays Dear, the fourth member and the group's mother figure. Each of the four can dominate the stage in one way or another; together they're an ensemble of scary intensity, one minute boiling in anger, the next erupting in crazed funnyness, yet always, in their overcooked way, seeming to truly love one another.

As always in these apparently Utopian situations, there turns out to be a sugar daddy. Donavan (Malcolm Madera), the rich owner of the building, uses the money-losing restaurant Dear and Wyatt run downstairs as a tax write-off, paying them and their lovers in room and board. Since this is a New York City story, it isn't giving too much away to mention that the realities of real estate play a part in the plot. But the meat of the play is its acidic depiction of the fearsome foursome through the juggernaut of Act One, and the challenge posed to them by Evan's cynicism in the slower and slightly too preachy Act Two. When things begin to fall apart in Act Three, it feels inevitable; these characters are simply too big for the temporarily comfortable life they've created for themselves.

And the center, the emotionally volatile Billy, cannot hold. Running his radical newspaper, engaging in frantic phone conversations with his revolutionary compatriots in Mexico, defusing conflicts right and left, he is a fount of endless nervous energy, but at the same time he's frozen in place, an idealistic man out of time, powerless to effect real change in the world. When this paralysis manifests physically, Billy is reduced to a raw lump of feeling, like the horribly transformed fly-creature tumbling out of the transporter pod at the end of David Cronenberg's The Fly. It's a captivating moment, and it sends us reeling into the street feeling provoked, enlivened, even a little bit enlightened.

Pictured: Matthew Pilieci as Wyatt, Mandy Nicole Moore as Dawn and James Kautz as Billy.  Photo by Larry Cobra. 

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side by The Amoralists runs through June 28 at P.S. 122.  Visit the P.S. 122 website for times and tickets or call 212-352-3101.

One thought on “Theater Review: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

  1. Love your writing, Jon, and your affinity to arts, politics, all topics large and small. I hope you’re getting exposure. And thanks for encouraging Jeannie Danna. She’s a natural.

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