Leave it to a New Yorker to distill hate, racism, and cynicism into a story about faith and redemption. In Amerissiah Derek Ahonen uses 27 years of city living to humorously portray the Ricewaters, a Bronx family living a perverse, but instantly recognizable version of the American Dream. The play’s remarkable achievement is tackling the bitter emotions that make us uncomfortable with literally irreverent humor. It’s a shocking thing to shock a New Yorker, and Ahonen, with his needle-sharp wit, left a stunned audience guffawing at the most inappropriate jokes. After this feat, there is something disappointingly cliché about the mystical ending, especially when the play’s realism makes the characters seem worth saving. However, the transformation of vitriol into touching comedy is in itself miraculous. The play revolves around Barry (Adam Fujita), a terminally ill man who has returned to his childhood home to die. Barry spends much of the first act cloistered in his bedroom, which gives us time to meet his family. Though it consists of stereotypes, the energy in each portrayal and the smart writing distinguishes the group as belonging uniquely to this play and to this singularly disturbed Ricewater family.
The family is in various states of denial, but Barry’s illness brings them together for a joint reckoning, which satisfies the guilty pleasure of laughing at their rottenness and hypocrisy. No ethnic group is spared their pointed anger, but the jokes within the play are filled with the good spirited self-awareness of theatrical humor.
In some ways the Ricewaters are oddly traditional, adhering to a custom of conspicuous consumption, and perceived moralistic liberalism, that has landed the patriarch, Johnny, and his daughter Holly in legal trouble. But Ahonen’s observations are fresh, his characters arrestingly eccentric. Holly is an angry, selfish alcoholic, but her transparency makes her sympathetic. When she later laments her need to do “what feels good,” it’s as though she knows of no other way to live; her superficiality is achingly pitiable.
Ahonen’s cruel and cynical characters would hardly be so engaging if it were not for superb performances from the cast. As Holly, Nancy Clarkson seems to buckle under the weight of her problems, and launches attacks with the particular bitterness of the insecure and unhappy. Though she struggles with a credible New York accent, her bitterness is simultaneously touching and disgusting.
Holly’s hate is mostly directed at Margi, Barry’s new age-obsessed wife, whose values stand in stark opposition to those of the Ricewater clan (Holly summarizes: “I hate calm women.”). Holly’s criticism extends to all members of her family and exemplifies their defiantly anti-Christian way of life. She is adamant, however, about identifying herself as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” as though it exonerates her. The family’s liberalism is an irony they are incapable of noticing, but it’s part of their quirky charm.
Rounding out this three-ring family circus are Johnny (George Walsh, who plays a delightful mix of Larry David, Tony Soprano, and everyone’s embarrassing uncle), Ricky, a recovering junkie, Loni, his emotional powder keg of a girlfriend, and Bernie, the evil neocon, complete with cross and self-serving biblical references. The recovering junkies are the most relatable characters onstage. William Apps’s Ricky is damaged like the familiar junkies of fiction, but his sensitivity highlights new depths in the archetype. Most poignantly, the bleakly comic assertion that this time, for real, he is off junk (which makes for a great punch line when the dying man is desperate for a toke). In this show, no stereotype is safe from ridicule. Beyond the liberal family there’s an interracial couple with a Scarface-clad wannabe rapper—a wannabe black person.
With selfishness and cynicism on jubilant display it might seem easy to dismiss a sick man with a messiah complex. However, though these figures seem hopeless, their dedication to Barry rouses the sort of compassion that begets forgiveness and redemption. When they forgo their skepticism to grant Barry his prophecies, the possibility of hope enters their lives, and the second act gives birth to several miracles: an unlikely apology from the unmovable father (who had once said “You gotta want to be right to be right”) and an unusual cameo from the sun.
Perhaps it’s disingenuous to pull a moral from a play that relishes in the vileness of its characters, but, when a strange black woman with telepathic powers arrives, Barry no longer seems like a joke; it’s just that the meaning of the miracle is unclear.
The salvation stuff aside, the show is an enjoyable antidote to the usual holiday fare about the joys and sorrows of homecomings. For this uniquely messed up American family, there is a uniquely American savior in Barry, the kind of Christ figure that can promise to get to heaven and make it impossible for those on Earth to cheat in sports.