A Mixed Bag of Cheap Laughs

happy-poorhouse-playBetween the absurdity of its characters and the contrivance of its conflicts, Happy in the Poorhouse gives off the prevailing feeling of a network sitcom on the verge of jumping the shark. Returning after last season’s much-hyped The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, The Amoralists and playwright/director Derek Ahonen have provided us with another ambiguous comedy, muddled with messages, uncertain of what it's trying to say or do. Ahonen writes freely, unafraid to ramble in Tarantino-like banter that tries to fill the many potholes in his bumpy plot. There are comic moments that connect with some clever dialogue, but these few hits fail to justify the close to two hours of failed attempts. The story-line is even harder to follow, covering the homecoming of a Middle East war hero, an unconsummated marriage, an unwitting pedophile mailman, the return of a Brooklyn-born country singer with her German girlfriend, a gay nurse with colostomy bag in tow, a gentleman boxer turned hitman, parents killed in a fatal shark attack, and much more, including a kitchen sink. As a playwright, Ahonen is in desperate need of an editor. As a director he is in even more dire need of a replacement. Characters not in the immediate action of a scene are instructed to simply exit to the bathroom for a time-out or move upstage and exchange whispered dialogue with their backs to the audience. Uneven accents are given free reign and embarrassing performances go unchecked, both of which are epitomized by Rochelle Mikulich’s portrayal of Penny. Mikulich is permitted to saunter between cartoonish Brooklyn and country accents, throwing in obnoxious animal sounds for good measure. For a character with no comic gimmick, Mikulich is left to hang on a minor plot point that is hinted at with the subtly of a train wreck and lamely revealed at the end. James Kautz (Paulie) is a strong contender for worst performance with his schleppy rendition of a limping, over-the-hill boxer that would have been more convincing as a towel-boy with a mild case of gout. As in The Pied Pipers before, Kautz’s acting is without redemptive qualities. On the salvageable side of the spectrum, Sarah Lemp provides as much believability to the role of Mary as the script allows and holds her own in a very flattering black dress. Morton Matthews breathes life into the near-impossible part of Sonny, setting the curve with one of the production’s few convincing accents and most captivating performances. Matthews seems impervious to Ahonen’s directorial inadequacies, possessing an inner comic strength that would allow him to read the Yellow Pages with dramatic conviction, which he is all but forced to do with the unlikely thread of his character’s sub-plot. Sloppiness and haste find their way into Al Schatz’s set design as well. Schatz, a self-proclaimed third degree Black Belt who doubles as the production’s Fight Choreographer, places an open window up-stage center that looks out on to the scenic back wall of the theater, less than a yard away. Pinned between this window and the front door of the home is a door that leads to a supposed bedroom that, even with a generous suspension of disbelief, allows for the dimensions of a small closet that would barely fit the two actors who enter it. Schatz’s choreographed fight shows signs of professionalism, but is rudely interrupted by the monologue of a thankless insert-character who talks through the entire battle. Either way, Schatz’s set mirrors the overall misguided nature of the play and its production. For a theater company formed as recently as 2006, The Amoralists have an uncanny ability to get new plays produced. In the future, one hopes they can channel that rare skill into the development of patiently crafted productions worthy of the stage. - C. Jefferson Thom cj_thomMr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.