Happy In The Poorhouse
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 15, 2010
I've seen four of the six plays Derek Ahonen has written for The Amoralists, and I'm inclined to declare this newest one, Happy in the Poorhouse, the finest so far. This is not conventional, heart-warming American family comedy, not by a long shot; and yet Ahonen's lack of pretense or precious experimentation makes this as accessible to audiences today as The Honeymooners was to audiences in the 1950s. Like all of his work, Poorhouse is grounded in a community with which he seems very familiar and within a generation for which he speaks eloquently. The love that underlies his work is palpable, which is why audiences care so readily for the inhabitants of it.
In this case, the inhabitants are the widely extended family of Paulie Pizzarulli, a man in his early 30s who dreams of being a star in MMA (about which The Amoralists helpfully provide a note in the program) but who makes a scrawny living as a bouncer at a bar in the Coney Island neighborhood where he lives. His wife is Mary, an actress-wannabe who runs the household with a strong will; the family breadwinner, though, is Mary's brother Joey, a postman with a taste for the ladies. Mary used to be married to Petie, another, more successful MMA fighter; but one day Petie suddenly walked out, joining the army to fight in Afghanistan. Mary eventually married Paulie, who was friend to both her and Petie. Today, though, Petie is coming back, and both Mary and Paulie are sure that he's coming back to reclaim his erstwhile wife. Making Mary's choice tougher is the fact that her marriage to Paulie has thus far not been consummated.
Additional complications come in the form of Paulie's sister Penny, who returns suddenly to Brooklyn from her budding country music career in Nashville; she has brought a surprise visitor along with her. And then there's Flossie, the teenager with whom Joey has just had sex. Is she really of age? And if so, why are her uncles Sonny and Sally so furious? And what's the deal with them owing all that money to the mob?
Ahonen throws lots of balls into the air in Poorhouse, but he manages to juggle all of them, tying up all of the loose ends of his complicated tale neatly and edging his characters—objectively losers, every one—toward something that can be construed as a happy ending. This is indeed a comedy in the classical and conventional senses, with plenty of mordant laughs throughout. There's also surprising wisdom. I loved, for example, this more or less random remark from Sonny:
Hey man, I ain’t no liberal. I just don’t know about wars. When I fight, I fight people that I know personally... that’s all.
All of the people in Poorhouse are united by their powerlessness against uncontrollable forces—economics, emotions, families. And most of them are aware that they're powerless. They're not just a metaphor for how many of us feel in 2010, they're genuinely stand-ins for what feels like an increasingly lost generation in America. And that's why Ahonen's work feels so authentic and significant.
If you've seen other work by The Amoralists, then you're familiar with their raw, no-holds-barred performance style. As Paulie, James Kautz—better than ever here—pounds holes into walls with his fists and gets staples stuck into his head, and we just hope that these actors are smart enough to have thought of ways to simulate what we're seeing rather than actually doing it (but we're never sure that they actually are). A fight between Paulie and Petie (William Apps), who is in a wheelchair, is spectacularly well executed (Al Schatz is the fight choreographer as well as the designer of the typically verisimilitudinous set). Ahonen, who directs, keeps the pace tight and quick and the emotions at full boil. All of the actors do fine work; shout-outs to Matthew Pilieci as Joey, Selene Beretta as Penny's friend Olga, and Patrick McDaniel as Larry "The Lab"—another MMA fighter—are merited. Sarah Lemp anchors the play with a deeply felt, smart performance as Mary.
The Amoralists' work in general and Happy in the Poorhouse in particular are not for everyone, but they should be for anyone who is interested in how we live, or get by, in America these days; and how the theatre can feel more like Everyman instead of the upper-middle-class elite who are the constant targets of plays presented by more mainstream and nonprofit theatre companies. My gut is that part of the future of American theatre rests with these guys and artists like them, which is why I keep coming back to see what they're cooking up.