The Amoralists, that outlandishly unconventional troupe that regularly appears with unusual and eyebrow-raising theatrical fare dedicated to "plumbing the depths of the social, political, spiritual and sexual characteristics of human nature," has done it again. They have done it, yes, but not so well as in their past offerings (including The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side and the recent Rantoul and Die). The Cheaters Club -- which is playing way off the beaten track on Grand Street, at the Abrons Arts Center of the Henry Street Settlement -- goes way too far, and going way too far has been key to the group's past success. (From their mission statement: We work at the edge of the cliff, not three feet back.) In this case, though, the results are merely slapdash and forced.
Author/director and Amoralist co-founder Derek Ahonen has concocted a present-day, Southern Gothic ghost story, Savannah-style, set in an historic inn haunted by murder, miscegenation, lust, voodoo and perhaps incest. This provides plenty of fodder for Ahonen and his mates to milk, and they do so constantly on the busy and clumsily effective two-story set (by Alfred Schatz).
The very description of the play sounds promising, yes, as does the fact that the Amoralists have poured no less than 26 actors on stage. (This being off off-Broadway and apparently non-Equity, one suspects that the 11 miscellaneous townspeople are not exactly paid.) The handsomely appointed if out-of-the-way theatre -- which opened in 1915 as the Neighborhood Playhouse and was home to the intimate Grand Street Follies series -- is festooned in cotton-wool cobwebs, with a corpse or two enshrouded in the closed-off side sections.
The Chaney Inn is overseen by Mama Chaney (Amoralist-mainstay Sarah Lemp) with her three grown children, somnambulant idiot child Lee (James Rees), closeted Lawrence (David Nash), and sluttish Lana (Kelley Swindall, in polka-dot panties). Also attached to the Chaneys are the voodooish housekeeper Ola May (Serena Miller), a Piano Man (Ben Reno) with a way over-long cigarette holder, and ghost tour-guide Vladimir Anton (Zen Mansley). The last is a one-time off Broadway actor noted for his one-man Kabuki production of Uncle Vanya, who appears to have had a "special" relationship with the deceased Chaney patriarch.
This all bodes well for Amoralist treatment, but Ahonen has grafted onto his setting a not-so-promising premise. A quartet of New York/New Jersey tourists come to the Inn to get even with their philandering spouses; that is, a "cheaters club" looking to avenge their mates. That's right, they band together and fly to Savannah in search of extramarital affairs. Not a satirically ripe or fruitful idea, methinks, and the root of the problem with The Cheater's Club. Unlike the old South characters, who are at least steeped in mossy atmosphere, these folk are mundane: Tommy Mayola (Amoralist co-founder Matthew Pilieci), his recovering addict sister Cathy (Cassandra Paras), his gay brother Jimmy (Byron Anthony), and his co-worker Vonn (Jordan Tisdale). Vonn is black, which means that he winds up in the dungeon in the basement in chains in his underwear, with Mama applying the lash.
Thus, we are faced with this swoopingly satiric ghost story of the present-day Old South superimposed with a generic group of marital cheaters. What's more, the cheaters get far more attention than they can handle; the play is called The Cheaters Club, after all. So the humor is fitful and scattershot, rather than sustained. We continue to admire the Amoralists for the dedicated pursuit of their brand of art, appreciate the efforts they take, and look forward to their continued explorations. But The Cheaters Club is not a winner, and unlike the usual Amoralist fare difficult to sit through.