Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

Photo/Larry Cobra

There are four things that a play needs. It has to be strong enough to grab your attention. It has to be honest enough to hold that attention. It has to be smart enough to make you think. And it needs to love and trust itself enough to not hold back. It's idealistic to expect that a play can handle these traits in tandem, but then again, Derek Ahonen's excellent The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is all about living such a Utopian dream. Practicing what it preaches from the mid-argument opening (Warning: Explicit Sexual Content and Utopian Ideals, reads the postcard), there isn't a single second of indifference in this production. Given the dramatic energy and comic timing of this troupe, the audience will be hard-pressed to find even a moment of anything short of love for the show.

Speaking of which, Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore) represents the love and trust of the show, a light-as-air charmer who insists only that everyone "just be love." If she looks small and frail, it's only because there isn't a mean bone in her body. So what if she's not great at playing any of the instruments she collects? Watch the way her body hums as she waits for the impulse to strike a drum and you realize that she is music.

Then there's Wyatt (Matthew Pilieci), the strength of the show--the sort of guy who blinks his wide eyes with such force that there's no room to be distracted. Part of the fun is watching Wyatt occasionally consider holding himself back, especially since Ahonen directs with the sort of no-holds-barred anarchism of his characters. Better still, Wyatt's a moody and indecisive guy, and with only a few feet between the stage and the first row, his wild energy is wholly believable (i.e., thankfully, there are some things you can't fake).

This brings us to the calm and rational Dear (Sarah Lemp), who advocates for and represents the emotional honesty of this show. Furthermore, as a former lawyer, she provides context to the other characters, allowing everyone to reach the different levels that are so vital and necessary for a complex and multidimensional play as this. The whole cast speaks with conviction, but it's Dear's direct and grounded dialog that enables us to connect with them, with this idea that we'd all be better off purging what we feel, even if that sometimes equates to lying your way into the truth.

Finally, there's Billy (James Kautz), the "intellectual" of the play. (Predominantly, that is; just as they share their bodies with one another, they also sometimes share their traits.) Rebelling against his wealthy parents, Billy first operated as an American journalist in the dangerous labor camps of southern Mexico, before heading to the city to help people fight the slow ceding of rights that comes of making little compromises to big corporations. He's paranoid, and not just from all the drugs and alcohol he uses, but he--and the other Pied Pipers--are so honest with themselves that everything they say makes a sort of sense.

The advancement of plot shows a few cracks, but this is a problem only for people who need their theater to be Botoxed into a stiff and more recognizable form. Billy's younger brother, Evan (Nick Lawson) is visiting for the first time since Billy ran off, which means that they're both in for some culture shock (especially since Evan's a would-be gangsta now, all about the bitches and the bling). There's also the arrival of their eccentric benefactor, Donovan (Charles Meola), the only overly comic part of the show (his constant "just kidding" is the grating antithesis of the Pipers, who are "always truthing"). Even with all this, things continue to pick up speed right until midway through the third act, at which point an act of "enlightenment" makes one character so blindingly "perfect" that we lose the lovely shades of gray amorality that electrify the rest of the play.

All told, though, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is the sort of theater that needs to be done: it's vital, alive, and full of unsquandered possibilities. You know, the sort of stuff that seemed to be done all the time on the Lower East Side. The violence of this world is unsantized, and accidents happen. (Alfred Schatz's intentionally haphazard set is perfect for this: each time a door slams, something else winds up falling down.) It's the sort of show where--and highly credit the actors for this--something new will happen every night. How honestly terrific.

No comments: