06/09/2010 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Culture Front: The Amoralists and the Civilians

The Amoralists seem to be the most buzzed about downtown theater company at the moment, coming off of two critically acclaimed productions: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side and Happy in the Poorhouse. I missed both shows but can only hope that they were better than Amerissiah, a re-staging of their 2008 production about a man who's dying of a treatable illness because he believes he's God. It's an intriguing enough premise, and I was hoping it would deal with some of the core conflicting ideas of science vs. religion or at least be a humorous parody of either, but unfortunately, it's just a mess of words being screamed for two hours. In a way, it feels like an endurance test. Perhaps playwright Derek Ahonen is trying to alienate his audience, daring us not to walk out even as the prospects for seeing good theater rapidly diminish. If so, let's do him one better and not show up at all.

On the surface, the play is a kitchen-sink drama of a family in crisis. Patriarch Johnny Ricewater and his daughter, Holly, have been caught embezzling money from their family business and are about to face a criminal trial. Meanwhile, their brother Barry is on his deathbed, smoking pot with his painfully spacey wife Margie and waiting for his moment of ascension to the divine throne. Throw in another brother, Ricky, his well-meaning but dim-witted girlfriend, a drug-dealing psychic, and her idiotic husband for the complete chaotic picture. There's plenty of tension and the situation is rife with dramatic possibilities, but Ahonen squanders every one of them and never allows his characters a single honest moment. The dialogue (under his direction) is delivered by the amateurish cast with indifference mixed with flourishes of overblown affectation and blinding rage. In other words, to quote Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The Civilians, on the other hand, craft shows filled with incredible wit and humanity. As a documentary theater group, they spend months interviewing people (past shows have included evangelical Christians and politicians) and shape transcripts into songs written by Michael Friedman. They put on a special one-night-only concert last weekend at Joe's Pub (steps away from the Public where Friedman's emo history odyssey Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is currently running) to showcase songs from their current work-in-progress musical about the adult film industry. The show lasted a little over an hour and was filled with wonderfully entertaining moments including a monologue by a porn star on all the different types of women in the world. Other highlights included a disarmingly warm-hearted song about how a married couple explain their "business" to their young children. The song focuses on a simple line of dialogue along the lines of "you know how people like to look at pretty girls..." that allows us to see the conflicting emotions of the character in a humorous "dilemma" type song. Book writer Bess Wohl and Friedman manage to infuse this sensational world with an everyday banality to show the guys and girls behind the porn star images without ignoring their sexual appeal. I can't wait to see how it all comes together.