Happy In the Poorhouse

Written and Directed by Derek Ahonen

The cast of Happy In the Poorhouse. Photo by Larry Cobra.

BOTTOM LINE: Raw, unshaped energy does not raw, compelling theater make.

Happy In the Poorhouse is the latest offering from the acclaimed theater company, The Amoralists. The group was founded in 2006 by playwright Derek Ahonen and actors James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci. It has been a busy four years for the trio as they have mounted no less than six original, full length plays in some of downtown’s most notable spaces. Ahonen writes and directs and Kautz and Pilieci act up a storm as brothers-in-law in their new show, now playing at 80 St. Marks.

Paulie and Mary are in the poorhouse. They are not happy. Mary lost the love (or lust) of her life, Petie, when he left her for the war in Iraq. She remarried another member of their insular Brooklyn community, Paulie, who has been in love with her since childhood. Paulie is a kind-hearted fighter with some issues in the bedroom. He treats her better than Petie ever did, but much to Mary’s dismay he cannot bring himself to consumate their marriage.

At the top of the show Mary and Paulie are arguing about sex while Mary sets up for ex-husband Petie’s ‘welcome home from the war’ party. As the two yell and scream at each other about life and love neither come across as very intelligent and our ears begin to turn off. In comes Mary’s brother, Joey to announce that he took the virginity of an eighteen year old on his mail route that afternoon. Following Joey come a cast of outlandish stereotypes from the community whose presence are a direct result of his afternoon dalliance. 

The mysterious Petie finally arrives at the very end of act one, wheel chair bound and accompanied by his flamboyantly gay nurse, Stevie. The second act begins with a rewind and we see Petie’s entrance for a second time. There are several lovely little surprises in the second act, which I wont reveal but let’s just say that everyone gets more or less what he or she deserves…and the inhabitants of the poorhouse all end up happy. 

In their mission statement The Amoralists declare “Rollicking, rebellious and raw, our work will go home with you…Boom!” Indeed there is a lot of raw energy on stage in Happy In the Poorhouse. A cast of eleven actors bound about for a solid two acts with much gusto. The two protagonists, Paulie and Mary, played by Kautz and the lovely Sarah Lemp, were both sweating within the first ten minutes of the show. But in an off-putting directorial choice, most of the eleven actors yell their way through the play as if to compensate for the half-baked caricatures they are portraying. The play has a few hills and valleys but the piercing pitch of all the performances only accentuates its otherwise one-note tone. A clearly energetic and savvy crowd of artists, I look forward to seeing what else The Amoralists can do. This time around however, the only thing that came home with me was the ringing in my ears.

(Happy In the Poorhouse plays at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place, has been extended through April 26, 2010. Performances are Mondays at 8pm, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for students and are available at or by calling 212.388.0388. For more information visit