The Qualification of Douglas Evans
Playwright Derek Ahonen writes a play about a playwright and it doesn't suck.
"You wrote a masturbatory play about your stupid relationship with some stupid girl and then you stupidly starred in it and were equally as bad at playing yourself as you were at writing about yourself," actress Cara says to playwright/actor Douglas Evans in an uncomfortable moment in The Qualification of Douglas Evans. This beguiling play is now receiving its world premiere as part of The Gyre, the Amoralists' summer repertory at Walkerspace. The above passage is particularly awkward because the actor playing Douglas Evans is none other than the play's actual author, Derek Ahonen, a founding member and resident bard of The Amoralists.
Ahonen penned last summer's delightfully perverse The Cheaters Club as well as the company's most popular piece, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. By casting the playwright in the central role of The Qualification of Douglas Evans, The Amoralists almost tauntingly invite autobiographical speculation (much as they do in the Gyre's other play, Enter at Forest Lawn, which is also about a troubled writer). I won't go there, but I will say that I usually find any theater about playwrights or actors and their "problems" extremely tiresome. However, I couldn't look away from Douglas Evans. The Amoralists' unique mix of sharp perspective and rigorous theatricality make this piece extremely rewarding, shedding new light on well-trod territory.
Douglas Evans is a nice boy from a dysfunctional family in suburban Ohio. His mother (Barbara Weetman) is an observant Catholic who runs a children's theater. His father (Penny Bittone) is a painter-turned-alcoholic-car-salesman. At the age of 18, Douglas moves to New York City to pursue a career in the theater. He loses his virginity to his Meisner scene partner, a bad girl named Jessica (Kelley Swindall). He then embarks on a long and unhealthy relationship with diminutive alcoholic Kimmy (Mandy Nicole Moore). He even writes a play about her (mentioned above). But when that turns out to be a flop, Douglas falls into the familiar despair of the creative underclass. Imagine if Lena Dunham's Girls dealt with substance abuse and domestic violence, while still maintaining a dark sense of humor.
Indeed, while Ahonen goes to some pretty dark places, he never loses his trademark wit and irreverence. This compelling mix of levity and gravity is maintained by an ensemble cast that dives headfirst into multiple roles. Agatha Nowicki accentuates the manic in Douglas' very own manic pixie dream girl, Robin. Samantha Strelitz is hysterical as Cara, the dilettante actress trustfunder with a condo on Perry Street who nevertheless claims to know a lot about life. Everyone seems to be stumbling drunkenly from one false epiphany to the next, taking what little comfort they can get in their relative stability.
This is most apparent in the title character. Ahonen has written himself a plum role and he doesn't disappoint in it. We watch Douglas go on a remarkable transformation, from wide-eyed naïf to hardened, bitter alcoholic (and that's just the first act). As the lights go down for intermission, Ahonen, bathing in his own sweat, swigs gin from a plastic bottle and takes a drag on his cigarette while he mugs for the audience like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. His idiosyncratic mix of nervous ticks and forced smiles is hypnotic. No matter how over-the-top the actors go, their flaws, feelings, and aspirations are all recognizably human, making Douglas Evans uncomfortably relatable.
Much credit goes to director James Kautz for never losing that connection, even in his own choreographic grandeur. The play opens with a dream sequence that could also serve as a perfume commercial. The supporting actors dance around Douglas in a dream ballet of liquor bottles. Douglas conducts an invisible orchestra in Verdi's Requiem as he directs his "masterpiece," the play he writes in a few days of being sober that finally gets good notices. This is art imitating life imitating art: an endless cycle of self-important delusion.
The plot occasionally feels repetitive, as if you've seen Douglas here before. But since the front of the program promises "a two play repertory exploring man's vicious cycles," you can't accuse The Amoralists of false advertising. The cyclical nature of the show is reinforced by David Harwell's spartan set, which features a central unit of a bed with a bench behind the headboard that rotates depending on the scene. Costume designer Lux Haac has Douglas in the same jeans and dirty Guns N' Roses T-shirt throughout the whole two hours and 30 minutes, suggesting that as the years pass, he actually changes very little.
Oh please, you might be rolling your eyes about now. The self-destructive genius: what a cliché. But this is not Amadeus, and we never get the sense that Douglas is actually a genius, but merely someone who gets a lucky break and promptly squanders it. In a sense, The Amoralists have democratized the genre: Through hard work and a shocking lack of self-awareness, you too can be a screwup masquerading as a misunderstood artist in New York City. God bless America.