Bar fighting and playwriting with the Amoralists

The homegrown troupe continues its winning streak of gonzo comedies.

There’s a new reason to brave the fuzzy hats and joss sticks crowding the sidewalks of St. Marks Place: The Amoralists, the suddenly omnipresent and omnipraised troupe, has risen again at Theatre 80 on that storied street. With two solid hits under their belt—2009’s The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side and this season’s Happy in the Poorhouse—the company now presents its barely seen 2008 Amerissiah (a mash-up of the words America and messiah) as part of a staggeringly busy year. Not only are there already plans to revive the two prior smashes for an encore season at P.S. 122 and to premiere Adam Rapp’s Ghost in the Cottonwoods this fall, but, tossing aside concerns for health and sanity, Amerissiah opens five weeks after Poorhouse closed.

For the critics and audiences who have fallen hard for the Amoralists’ sprawling, knockabout style, the news is good. Nobody else weds old-fashioned realist structure to working-class-hero lunacy quite this way, and no other acting collective seems so raw, so heartfelt, so exuberantly extreme onstage and off.

The Amoralists have three co--artistic directors: Matt Pilieci (the intense lupine one), James Kautz (the intense wide-eyed one) and Derek Ahonen (the intense one with the beard from the ’70s), all 29. The three found each other at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, but stories vary on how they discovered their kindred spirits. “We were the guys who really wanted to get slapped in scenes,” Kautz recalls. “We wanted to get hit; we wanted to test ourselves.” Pilieci remembers them as the rare kids at the school who wanted to watch sports. The bond, says Pilieci, was cemented when “I pulled a knife on a guy after he tried to kill James in a bar.” Ah, old New York—who says it’s over?

Bars occupy a sacred space in the Amoralists’ origin story. For starters, our plucky heroes still engage in the odd saloon fight (“Once per show! It keeps the blood flowing!” avers the cheerful Pilieci). But also, if it weren’t for the lameness of Los Angeles watering holes, we might have lost them forever. In 2006, the guys took off for parts west. Once in L.A., though, disappointment followed. “We went to five bars, and they were all pathetic,” scoffs Ahonen. “How good could the art be?” As any young men with dreams of greatness would, they promptly decamped to Las Vegas, with intentions of winning 50 grand and starting a company...but they ended up losing $5,000. Luckily, deficit spending has made this country great, and they produced their first show that same year.

All three began as actors, but Ahonen quickly shifted into being the group’s primary playwright and director, and he has shown uncommon facility with both. An Ahonen script prioritizes speed and surprise, so lives alter radically in the course of a short amount of time. “I’m not interested in telling stories about little, incremental life changes,” he says. Kautz is more to the point. “We hate it when the most dangerous thing happens offstage,” he states. “We hate that aftermath shit.” Influenced by the earthy John Cassavetes aesthetic, Ahonen pieces together ad hoc families who grapple with religion, social responsibility and sex—often simultaneously. Pied Pipers was infamous for its wacky nude scene, but it was beloved for its finely drawn characters and its subversive sense of sweetness.

Amerissiah, written in response to the financial crisis in 2008, may surprise those who have grown to love the hectic hilarity of the Amoralists’ other works. Yes, there are screaming fights and spaced-out marijuana mamas and poop jokes. But at a recent rehearsal in the bare room above their theater, the group was clearly going deeper than simple fun. Messianic zeal, the duties of fathers and the postbelief vacuum all figure here, and the balance tips away from zaniness and toward sincerity. After a run-through, actors William Apps and George Walsh need to hug just to overcome the electrical tension.

Despite the media attention and a semipermanent home at 80 St. Marks, the Amoralists haven’t gotten cocky. (Well, actually, the core trio started out cocky—but no one’s resting on any laurels.) Ahonen is already planning their “comeback” play. “Eventually you people are going to turn on us,” he notes with a low chuckle. The others have plan Bs as well. “If it all goes to shit,” claims Kautz, “Derek goes back to his parents’ basement, I go to southern Mexico to be an anticapitalist, and Matt moves to Costa Rica and opens a bar. If this crashes, this is it for us, man. This company is the dream.”

Amerissiah is now playing at Theatre 80.

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