Food for Thought

There’s never been a family quite as tight as the foursome at the center of Derek Ahonen’s The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. There is Billy (James Kautz), a would-be revolutionary with a substance-abuse problem; Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore), a young runaway who emerges from an abusive background; Dear (Sarah Lemp), a former lawyer whose utopian ideals make her the de facto “mother” of this group; and the volatile but impassioned Wyatt (Mathew Pilieci). As we find out over the course of stiflingly hot week in the studio apartment they share above the vegan restaurant (from which the show gains its title) in which they work, this quartet is bonded by more than just home, job, and shared philosophies on life. Hearkening back to the communal families that emerged in the 1960s, Billy, Dawn, Dear and Wyatt are more than just a nuclear group – they also share each other. They are involved with each other sexually, and have frolicked together in every possible permutation. Their arrangement works for them, and needs no judging until two outsiders enter the action and throw all of their beliefs into question.

The first of these characters is Billy’s younger brother Evan (Nick Lawson), whose conservative beliefs serve as a stark contrast to the lifestyle his brother and his friends have enjoyed. Though the substance of the play, echoes of free love, fight the power, and antiestablishment come straight from the 1960 and 1970s, the play’s structure stems from an earlier era. The idea of the outsider entering a group and being introduced to a different way of life is a classic – Kaufman and Hart employed the “fish-out-of-water” theme all the time.

What is so remarkable about Pied Pipers, though, is that Evan – the “fish” in this story – isn’t the protagonist with whom we need to identify. It is to Ahonen’s credit just how quickly he and his cast get the audience to identify with the show’s main characters. By the time of Evan’s entrance, we are firmly on the side of these tenants, and though we may find some of their decisions flawed, we want to understand more about where they came from.

Part of the reason why may be that the Amoralists, the production company mounting Pied Pipers, have lived with these characters for a long time. The production, currently staged at P.S. 122, played a previous run at the Gene Frankel Theater in 2007, and everyone involved possesses a palpable love and respect for the play’s characters.

More important, though, is the amount of discipline and trust the actors have among each other. Ahonen’s script calls for his cast to endure many emotional and physical demands (which is why, despite a nearly three-hour running time, Pied Pipers always feels electric and never boring), and they all rise to the challenge with performances that feel full of conviction.

Kautz is extraordinary. He makes Billy a font of disappointment, stripping away the character so we can see how his regret over actions both taken and never taken have led him to drugs and alcohol. I love Moore’s pixie-ish qualities (though think her character’s attraction to Evan felt a little unjustified), and Lemp somehow manages to make her character’s speeches explaining their lifestyle feel authentic, when they could have felt merely didactic. Most astonishing of all, though, is Pilieci’s powerful work, which can best be described as Pacino-esque – full of both vitriol and vulnerability at once.

There are two more names that must be mentioned. The first is Malcolm Madera, another wonderful actor who joins the play’s second act as Donovan, the landlord who has allowed Billy, Dawn, Dear and Wyatt to commune in their apartment for free in return for work at the Pied Pipers. Donovan, a wealthy man with a wife and child hidden off in the suburbs, has supported these characters for his own purposes. As these emerge, Ahonen’s themes and questions come into a focus. I loved the bits Madera employed to show how slick Donovan was, trying to come off as a friend but showing that he was the dominant member of their relationship at all times. As he stomps around their pad, he uses everything he can to show that he, in fact, owns them. Alfred Schatz is also to be praised for his note-perfect set, which effectively becomes a seventh character.

Ahonen’s play is never one-sided. We understand why Dear’s thinking is hopeful but flawed, and why Donovan’s philanthropy is so self-serving. He asks important questions and, while Pied Pipers offers plenty of reasons, leads the audience to arrive at their own answers to them. What is abundantly clear, however, is how important all six of Ahonen’s characters are to him as people. Love stories don’t come any purer than this.

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