The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
nytheatre.com review by James Comtois
June 8, 2009
With The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, writer-director Derek Ahonen, along with the cast and crew, has created a self-contained world where the characters have created a unique niche for themselves and the audience has been invited along for the ride. By the end of the show, you don't feel like you've been watching these characters so much as you've been living with them.
This is a wonderful show I had a great deal of fun with. It simultaneously deals with both abstract ideas and physical human behavior. Although it's not perfect—there are some subplots and ideas conveyed that are a little less developed than others—Ahonen's show, produced by The Amoralists, offers a fun, thought-provoking and sometimes intense night of theatre, something that's well worth the audience's time, attention, and money.
(I should also add that this show's definitely not for the squeamish, since it has, to quote Troy McClure, "hardcore nudity," including not just a full frontal view of the male member, but with said member being fully erect. Just so you know.)
The play takes place in an apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side above a vegan restaurant (the play's namesake) during a summer heat wave. The residents of the apartment are four people living in an "extended sexual family," or 1960s-style communal tribe (though the play takes place during the present day). They're all in a romantic/sexual relationship with one another and live in the apartment rent-free in exchange for working at the restaurant, thanks to a semi-eccentric philanthropist millionaire who owns the building.
The four utopian idealist lovers are Wyatt, a long-haired bearded fellow addicted to scratch tickets and prone to panic attacks and violent outbursts; Billy, a revolutionist with a serious drinking and drug habit who's avoiding a friend's requests to join him in Mexico to help with a revolt against the government; Dawn, a young doe-eyed singing-songwriting naif who joined the commune after running away from a horrifically abusive home life; and Dear, a former lawyer who abandoned her corporate and lucrative roots to clearly become the "leader" of this family.
The first act of the play introduces us to these people and a possible intruder in their self-contained world: Billy's younger frat boy brother Evan is coming to visit and may not take to his older brother's lifestyle. The second act concerns the foursome expressing their world views and philosophies to a very incredulous and disgusted Evan and introduces Donovan, their benefactor, who throws yet another wrench into their utopian plans. The third act...well, no. We won't discuss the third act, except to say that it resolves the story, but in ways I did not at all expect.
Ahonen neither idealizes nor mocks these characters and their philosophies. When they discuss their world view, at times I'd agree, at times I'd realize they're deluded, and at times I'd see their hypocrisies. (I mean, a utopian idealist with an addiction to scratch tickets? A revolutionary who's afraid to go down to Mexico to actually help real life revolutionaries? Come on!)
Even at nearly three hours, the play moves fast. At no point during this production was I bored. Ahonen keeps things constantly engaging and moves things along at a brisk pace. In fact, the only time I'd check my watch would be during intermissions, thinking, "Oh, wow. We're at intermission already?" It's thoroughly compelling from start to finish.
The cast—Matthew Pilieci as the volatile Wyatt, James Kautz as the conflicted Billy, Mandy Nicole Moore as the vulnerable Dawn, Sarah Lemp as the ring-leading Dear, Nick Lawson as the hate-filled Evan, and Malcolm Madera as the funny-yet-vaguely-threatening Donovan—is so good to the point that I'd often forget I was watching performers recite memorized dialogue and move according to prepared blocking. Rather than consciously think Kautz was playing the role of Billy well, I'd often think, "Billy, get it together," as if he were a real person.
I also need to give some serious kudos to Alfred Schatz for his brilliant set, recreating a large yet unkempt Lower East Side apartment with tons of nice little details, ranging from the eclectic knickknacks (such as bongo drums, masks, and an inflatable clown-shaped punching bag) and graffiti on the walls (with sayings like, "EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE, NOTHING FOR OURSELVES"). Entering the theatre and seeing the set, I was immediately transported back to my college days, visiting countless stoner college friends' off-campus apartments.
In the program for The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, Ahonen writes that he really cares about these characters. That comes through in every scene in this wonderfully captivating and compelling play, and in turn, I really cared about these characters, too, and was a little sad to see them go at curtain call.