Happy in the Poorhouse
Derek Ahonen's Happy in the Poorhouse opens with Paulie, a soon-to-be washed-up mixed martial arts fighter from Coney Island, arguing with his wife, Mary. He's got a noticeably massive wound on his right temple. She's running around the house trying to get it set up for a welcome home party for her first husband. During their fight, he gets so frustrated he pounds his fist through the plaster of the wall (near other fist-sized holes). Paulie then continues to argue with Mary while putting tape over the hole he just put in the wall.
Right away, the Amoralists' new show—like their previous outing, the exceptional The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side—conveys a raw, intense energy and physicality that hooked me in within the first two minutes and didn't let go until curtain call.
I really enjoyed this play. Ahonen and the Amoralists have a wonderfully distinct style and aesthetic that is very engaging and exciting to watch. After seeing only two of their shows, the Amoralists has become a company—like Vampire Cowboys—that I'm making a point from now on to go see whatever they do. You should, too.
Happy in the Poorhouse is very funny and engaging. It's thought-provoking without being heavy-handed or pretentious. It feels simultaneously old-fashioned (in a good way) yet very fresh and new. To use a sound-byte analogy, this show feels like what would happen if The Honeymooners were directed by Martin Scorsese.
Paulie and Mary are dealing with two huge problems. Well, three. The first one (which may be surmountable) is that they're flat broke. Paulie's primary source of income is not from his MMA fighting—he's a few fights away from being done—but from being a bouncer in a local bar. The two real problems they have is that Mary's ex-husband and Paulie's former best friend, Petie, a more successful former MMA fighter, is coming back from a tour in Afghanistan, and she hasn't resolved her feelings about him yet. Why? Well, that's the other big problem: Paulie and Mary haven't consummated their marriage yet. Ouch.
Wait, there's more. Paulie's younger sister, Penny, is also coming home that night after being away in Nashville for five years pursuing—and apparently achieving—her dreams of being a successful country singer. Mary insists that Paulie ask his younger sister for money. Paulie doesn't feel comfortable about that at all. Well, it's a moot point, since when Penny gets home, she says she's done with the music biz, and just wants to come home and settle down with her new intense German girlfriend, Olga.
I'm not finished. The two of them live with Mary's brother, Joey, a horndog mailman who likes to get it on with all the honeys on his route. This proves to be problematic for Joey later in the show, as he realizes he may have made a huge mistake by having sex with Flossie, a teenage girl on his route who may or may not be legal (hey, she said she was 18). She brings her two large and angry uncles, Sally and Sonny, to Joey, who threaten to beat him to a pulp unless he admits this wasn't a one-
night afternoon fling.
There is more, much more that goes on here (including Sally and Sonny running from a $10,000 gambling debt, a possible stalker who's looking for Penny, and Petie's inevitable homecoming). For all the new characters and subplots that Ahonen piles on throughout Happy in the Poorhouse, it never feels overstuffed or confusing. In fact, it's exhilarating. I didn't necessarily know where the show is going (I was expecting a completely different trajectory for the story), but I was never lost.
Although much of this has to do with Ahonen's vibrant writing and direction, a great deal of credit must also be given to the amazing cast he's assembled (many of whom are Amoralist regulars). There's a tight-knit and inclusive feeling that the cast conveys, so you immediately know—and believe—who's connected to whom in the story. Everyone in the 11-person cast is clearly very simpatico with Ahonen's work and each other.
In fact, everyone in the cast (many of whom are former Pied Pipers cast members) is superb, particularly the principals: James Kautz as Paulie, Sarah Lemp as Mary, and Matthew Pilieci as Joey. Nick Lawson steals the scenes he's in by playing a...you know what? I'm not telling you his role. You're just going to have to see for yourself. Nor am I going to tell you too much about Patrick McDaniel's role as Larry "The Lab," aside from the fact that he, too, delivers a hilarious powerhouse of a performance.
Al Schatz does double-duty as set designer and fight choreographer (how's that for a hyphenate?), and does an excellent job with both creating a fully-realized and believable set of a lower-middle-class house in Coney Island as well as orchestrating an intense and amusing fight between two MMA fighters, one of whom happens to be wheelchair-bound.
Like The Pied Pipers, Happy in the Poorhouse evokes an earlier period (the 1960s for Pied Pipers, the '50s for Poorhouse) yet takes place in the present day. Which makes sense: both plays follow conventions of such earlier plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner and The House of Blue Leaves (seriously), yet deftly infuses them with modern sensibilities in a way that doesn't feel awkwardly shoehorned in.
Happy in the Poorhouse deals with working class stiffs who still dream big despite the walls of reality closing in on them. Seeing Paulie pound holes in the wall, it's nice to think that even though he may be washed up as a professional fighter, he's still got some fight left in him.
Happy in the Poorhouse has been extended until April 26 at Theatre 80 on 80 St. Mark's Place. Click here for tickets.
Always fighting paraplegics and losing,
James "Coulda Been Somebody" Comtois