In the last few years, The Amoralists – a passionate group of players that includes founding members Derek Ahonen, James Kautz, and Matthew Pilieci – have created quite a name for themselves on the downtown scene with their blend of traditional storytelling structure and in-your-face comedy. Those who have missed their previous works are in luck, though: their 2010 season includes revivals of such recent works as The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side and Amerissiah, which just opened at Theater 80. Amerissiah, written and directed by Ahonen, falls slightly beneath the benchmark set by such shining lights as Pipers and the recent Happy in the Poorhouse. The play, still steeped in over-the-top yuks, probes fairly deeply, but Ahonen isn’t able to answer all of his questions as satisfyingly as one might hope. And yet a nearly perfect cast makes the experience a worthwhile one.
George Walsh is Johnny Ricewater, a used car salesman cum mini-celebrity whose questionable finances have gotten himself and business partner daughter Holly (the typically outstanding Sarah Lemp) into some trouble with the law. But Holly has even more pressing matters to deal with, including her estranged lawyer husband Bernie “the Attorney” (Kautz) and the impending demise of eldest brother Barry (Pilieci).
Barry has returned to the Ricewaters’ childhood home on Long Island in anticipation of his death as cancer gets the best of him. He’s comforted by the fact that he thinks he is the Second Coming (Ahonen’s title is an amalgam of the words “American” and “messiah”), a notion shared by an interracial couple (Nick Lawson and Jennifer Fouche) who arrive from the Midwest convinced that Barry can save their souls. Meanwhile, third Ricewater child Ricky (William Apps), a recovering addict, has come home with his new girlfriend Loni (Selene Beretta), also feeling the ache of rehabilitation.
Ahonen has assembled a team in the truest sense of the word. His ensemble is a group of talents that work incredibly well together, and their intimacy easily translates into a warts-and-all look at one seriously dysfunctional family. Amerissiah runs the gamut of humor to pathos, from scatology to spirituality, and these actors fulfill all of Ahonen’s demands with vivid brushstrokes.
But the show is also a little too dyspeptic for its own good. Ahonen’s works start out at a higher decibel than most shows and only continue to get louder and more hyper. This has worked in other shows but has a bit of a diluting effect on the material in Amerissiah; it is easy to gloss right over the show’s more inward, reflective moments because the play isn’t slow and silent enough in pockets. It is a two-tone show that should feel more blended together.
That is not to say that this dedicated cast eschews realism. On the contrary, the performances in Amerissiah provide plenty of gravitas in addition to mere entertainment (and they certainly entertain, with aplomb). Apps and Beretta navigate through thick subtext to shed extra light on their troubled characters. Pilieci and Walsh both convincingly portray men looking for more meaning, more connection, than their lives have provided to them, regardless of their accomplishments. And Fouche is a marvel as Carrie, the quintessence of devotion.
Additionally, Kautz and Lemp share a special chemistry as the exes who cannot untangle from their bond. The two are comic delights, with Kautz playing the milquetoast and Lemp engaging in full-throttle hysteria throughout the show. Lawson, too, as a closed-minded, epithet-spewing yokel, is a laugh riot. Only Aysha Quinn, as Barry’s ethereal wife, Margie, feels a little too meek and disengaged for this gang.
Still, despite stumbling through some of Amerissiah’s heavier tropes, Ahonen has excelled in another area. He has created another unorthodox family of chaotic characters. And in loving them even more than they love each other, he has managed to make them unforgettable.