It smells like autumn and death within the musty confines of the Playhouse at the Abrons Arts Center, overpowering the perhaps more pungent stench of infidelity. It proves the perfect olfactory setting for this laugh-out-loud Southern Gothic spectacle, which is brimming with magic and delicious perversity.
Rounding out "the summer of the Amoralists" (as this adults-behaving-badly theater company is wont to call their summer season), The Cheaters Club by Derek Ahonen (The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side) follows right on the heels of their acclaimed production of Rantoul and Die. Abandoning America's heartland, The Amoralists focus their attention on a group of New Yorkers in the Deep South...and prove that there are terrible people everywhere, not just in the midwest.
Siblings Tommy (a sleazy Matthew Pilieci), Jimmy (Byron Anthony at his most foul), and Cathy (Cassandra Paras) have invited newcomer Vonn (Jordan Tisdale) to join The Cheaters Club, their once-a-year excuse to travel to some far-flung destination and have sex with people who are not their spouses. This year, these four mouthy New Yorkers have chosen the Chaney Inn of Savannah, Georgia. Run by Mama Chaney (Sarah Lemp) and her children, the Chaney Inn is purportedly the most haunted inn in America. It is also surrounded by drunken tourists in heat so it's the perfect place for this meeting of the Cheaters Club to come to order.
The Chaneys trade on their intrigue, with a forbidden room, creepy ghost puppets, and a cheesy/spooky novelty door chime. Like a southern gentleman from another era, the family bartender Lawrence (a well-cast David Nash) eschews plebian Jaeger Bombs for far more dignified Chatham Artillery Punch. (I imagine it tastes like rum and oppression.) Vladimir Anton (Zen Mansley), an actor in the employ of the Chaneys, leads overpriced "ghost tours" around Savannah's haunted attractions, a far cry from his halcyon days starring in a one-man kabuki production of Uncle Vanya in the East Village.
Yet beneath this veneer of prepackaged spookery there are real ghosts: Papa Chaney, the maid Minerva, and her husband, Ole Jim, were murdered in a terrible incident ten years ago. Minerva's voodoo-practicing daughter, Ola May (Serena Miller), hangs around the inn, scaring the bejesus out of guests and further blurring the thin line between quaint bed & breakfast and bona-fide crap-your-pants house of horrors.
Writer/director Ahonen spins a pretty fantastical yarn with these larger-than-life characters, the details of which would be unfair to share in this review. It is safe to report, however, that a constant state of flux between the ridiculously banal and the deadly serious keeps the audience on their toes throughout this 150-minute show, which feels much shorter. It's just so chock-full of magic, mayhem, and surprises, it is impossible to not be entertained.
The Cheaters Club benefits greatly from the uniformly committed performances given by its cast of thousands (26...which is thousands by downtown standards). Lemp possesses all the requisite psychotic charm of a Southern belle. Mansley exudes the alcoholic pomp expected of a thespian-turned-tour guide. Even the lesser players like Catholic barfly Nun Francine (Penny O'Brien) and the Chaneys' silent accompanist Piano Man (Ben Reno), live their roles completely, further enriching Ahonen's mad and multifaceted world. Seeing them all on stage is a breathtaking sight to behold, revealing the giant scope of this play.
Alfred Schatz's set is stunning in its grandeur. The two-story unit offers both interior and exterior scenes at the inn thanks to some well-placed scrim and what was obviously a very fruitful collaboration with lighting designer Brad Peterson. It's a life-sized dollhouse. The sacrificial lamb of this theatrical wizardry is the sightlines, which are occasionally obscured by non-scrim walls and load-bearing posts. To combat this, the design team has removed all side seating, occupying those chairs with tacky cotton spider webs and the occasional corpse of a deceased theater patron. It feels like watching a play in a dusty abandoned theater, further enhancing the mood.
While The Amoralists claim to produce work of "no moral judgment," that doesn't mean that there is nothing of moral value to absorb from their productions. For all its buffoonery, The Cheaters Club offers some surprisingly wise lessons about the consequences of obsessing over human error — the way we create our own ghosts through our inability to let go.