This is not your typical living-room drama. Mark Roberts' Rantoul and Die is now making its New York premiere at The Cherry Lane Theatre in a production by bad-kid theater collective The Amoralists, best known for The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, their play about a polyamorous anarchist collective. Rantoul and Die features no running water or Crate & Barrel furniture. It's not about depressed Upper West Siders or Park Slope professionals with problems. The actors don't trade passive-aggressive barbs while clutching tumblers full of top-shelf liquor. Rather, they deliver verbal beatings while downing cans of Natty Light.
Rantoul and Die is about aging Gen Xers living in Rantoul, a small town in rural Illinois that has never really recovered from the closure of the Chanute Air Force Base in 1993, roughly the time when our protagonists graduated high school. They work dead-end jobs and go home to crumbling marriages. It is thrilling, and far funnier than it should be considering the subject matter. I felt a twinge of guilt with every laugh, but not so much so as to stop watching. You just can't turn away from this precisely calculated, ingeniously choreographed train wreck.
Alfred Schatz's set is a work of art that constantly yields new discoveries. The ramshackle living room is powered by a complicated system of extension cords. A grilled cheese sandwich seeps out of a George Foreman grill onto the carpet as a pint of generic ice cream melts onto an end table made of synthetic wood. Rusty weights lay idle next to a weight bench, which serves dually as a third seat in front of the TV and an ashtray stand. Junk food occupies every conceivable nook and cranny. This is the lair of Rallis (Derek Ahonen), a sad sack on the precipice of divorce from his foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, Dairy Queen assistant-managing wife, Debbie (Sarah Lemp).
Debbie wants out, but Rallis is not ready to let go. Before the play begins, he slits his wrists in a cry for help, only to be rescued by his friend Gary (Matthew Pilieci), a tracksuited former (current?) pot dealer and casual psychologist. "Suicide is a selfish act, Rallis. Absolutely no regard for the people left behind," he chides. "Like jerkin' off in the salad bar. F*** if anybody else wanted some ambrosia."
Roberts' language is rich with salty language and lurid imagery, heightening a story in which the situations are deadly realistic. This cast takes advantage of every syllable. "Sometimes I'll pretend that I'm floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only instead of water, it's a sea of cats. And they're keeping me afloat," Perky DQ manager/cat lady Callie (Vanessa Vaché) waxes poetic. She joins the above three in the second act. Callie is a good girl (with a seriously dark side) who is drawn to tragedy, as if she were the protagonist in a Hallmark Channel movie. Obviously she can't stay away from Rallis. "You gotta figure he [God] has big plans for you, Rallis." Vaché has a natural hold on her character that makes Callie feel creepily real.
Lemp has the most difficult role and she tackles it with an uncommon mixture of tenderness and ferocity. A no-nonsense ball-busting "Type A" in the first act, Debbie goes through a huge transformation by the second that leaves her questioning a callous disregard of others, especially her pathetic husband. In true Amoralist fashion, however, she is far from the worst-behaved in this sweaty, disgusting, and perversely sexy comedy.
Poverty is the fifth character in Rantoul and Die. As American jobs are found less at the tool and die and more at the Dairy Queen, the claim of being a part of the "middle class" (a group to which a plurality of Americans like to think they belong) becomes increasingly ridiculous for the vast swath of Americans who drew the short end of the stick in our transitioning economy. The service-industry working poor — that is to say, the people in this play — are a growing demographic in the United States. The Amoralists project that world on stage, in all its seedy unpleasantness, with this insanely funny and all-too-real extravaganza of misfortune. There should be more theater like this.