Playwright/director Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists specialize in "going there" – that is, where other troupes usually dare not tread. In Happy in the Poorhouse "there" includes constipation, an unconsummated marriage, a half-infantile little sister, and a fight involving a paraplegic. It also – like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel – means going to Coney Island.
Fresh off their critically acclaimed (including by this critic) Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, the Amoralists have picked up and re-settled in Coney, where pugilist Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz), an over-30 would-be pro fighter trying to make ends meet as a bouncer, and his wife of eight months, Mary (Sarah Lemp), are preparing to welcome home Paulie's old buddy Petie "The Pit," who is also Mary's ex-husband, from the war in Afghanistan.
Ahonen is very skilled at writing characters and dialogue that are larger and louder than life yet reflect with an awkward accuracy the universally recognizable aches and pains of the human heart. In the long opening scene Paulie and Mary hash through their inability to truly unite despite loving each other, a battle with which she's clearly losing patience. And it's not just Paulie's unwillingness to have sex, it's what lies behind it, in both of their pasts.
Paulie: "…it's like I'm thinking of you when we was kids. Back when we was building them forts and hiding from them imaginary bad guys. I'm seeing you at six…skipping around on the pogo stick across the street. That's when I first knew I loved you…"
And shortly thereafter:
Mary: "The only reason I don't wander around with the lustful eyes is because I know it will destroy your sad heart and I'm a good person who don't want to see your cookies crumble down the fire escape."
This is Ahonen at his best, and he has two fiery actors making it all shine.
Now, "going there" is all very well. Pied Pipers went where it went with enough focus to sustain itself. Happy in the Poorhouse, though, goes too many places. It has a lot of fun getting there, with memorable characters, much humor, and the kind of elevated working-class writing, self-conscious yet honestly poetic, that marks this playwright as a writer of great talent, and an evident nostalgia for the unsubtle big style of writers of the 1930's. And the troupe is up to the challenge of living his words, allowing the writing to transform their bodies into giants: often shouting, often laughable and stereotyped and overcooked, but acutely touching in the way the best cartoon characters can be.
What's missing – not throughout, but for significant stretches of both acts – is focus. More characters pile on, announcing themselves with overdone aria-like bombast, and some seem to be there just for local color. Rochelle Mikulich is delightful as Paulie's country-singer little sis, and Matthew Pilieci deserves notice as Mary's preening mailman brother. But the structure feels imposed, the flow uneven.
The satisfying ending and the attention-grabbing fun on the way there make this, on balance, a show I can recommend, but with distinct reservations. Happy in the Poorhouse runs through April 5 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, NYC. Visit that Theatre 80 St. Marks website for tickets.
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