Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy in the Poorhouse

Photo/Larry Cobra

Thwack. That's the sound a fist makes going through drywall. It's also an undeniable punctuation, the sort of high-energy mark that the Amoralists hit time and time again in their latest production, Derek Ahonen's Happy in the Poorhouse. The puncher in question is Paulie (James Kautz), a scrappy, small-time MMA fighter, who wears his heart on his tape-wrapped fists. He's trying to show his wife Mary (Sarah Lemp) how much he loves her, especially now, on the eve of a Welcome Home From Over There party for his ex-best-friend and Mary's ex-husband, Petie (William Apps). Problem is, he's too nervous to screw her, even though she's brassy enough to make it clear--throwing herself on to him at times--that if he doesn't, she might not be able to resist other men.

This basic concept is presented at first as a dime-store pulp, but quickly flips into a blitzkrieg romance  ("He was a sloppy, loose, under-confident lover...."). It doesn't get very deep--certainly nowhere near the message of their last show, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side--but this melomedy is never anything less than entertaining. But sometimes more is less: that non-stop action strains the heart of the show. It makes sense for Joey (Matthew Pilieci), Mary's brother, to be there--he provides contrast between the men in Mary's life-- but the arrival of his morning mail-route conquest, Flossie (Meghan Ritchie) and her angry uncles Sonny (Morton Matthews) and Sally (Mark Riccadonna) is all bluster. Likewise, it's fine for Penny (Rochelle Mikulich), Paulie's sister, to return home--she reminds us how desperately Paulie wants to elevate his family, and how embarrassed he is by his inability to make the big leagues. But she brings baggage with her: Olga (Selene Beretta), the love of her life. Two other characters also appear, Stevie (Nick Lawson) and Larry (Patrick McDaniel), worth mentioning less for their contribution to the plot--though Larry also exhibits the charm of a man trying to make good--than for their actors, who deliver dead-on performances.

As a drama, the play feels too packed, and as a comedy, the show isn't farcical enough (i.e., there aren't enough doors) to fit it all in. The result is hilarious, yes, but also diffuse and dizzying, a strong-arming sort of comedy. However, Happy in the Poorhouse also winds up feeling wholly unique: Ahonen mixes so many bright character colors that each scene literally leaps off the page. His writing is fearless, and his cast--particularly his core actors--are, too. As a team, they keep the show from flying off the rails, muscling the wackiest of lines down to the mat of reality; "If you don't follow your dreams, Penny, you get eaten by sharks" is one of the most heartfelt lines of the evening.

It's Odets and Williams Gone Wild, and the deep-down sincerity of it all is what saves it: "My whole existence would be one unjoyfulled nothing without Mary. I got a shit job, a thousands and one bills that my brother in law has to help me to pay, a kid sister who ran far away from me the first chance she got, and a broken-down dream that I gotta defibrillate all throughout the day to keep it from dying." From Pilieci's sexual sight-gags to Mikulich's mouse-squeaking innocence to Lemp's anguished libido to Kautz's confident shyness, the whole thing feels real and, at the end of the day, is most certainly Happy in the Poorhouse.

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