BOTTOM LINE: Well-written play with a talented, high energy cast. Layered and thought provoking if somewhat unfocused.
There are many things I'm not sure about after seeing The Amoralists' production of Amerissiah. I'm not sure if it was intended to be a comedy or not, although many around me seemed to find it quite humorous. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a mockery of religion or not, although the sincerity of the wrap up leads me to believe that it wasn't completely making fun. And I'm not sure I ever want to hear another Long Island accent again as long as I live. What I am certain about however is that Amerissiah did what I believe all good theater must do, and that is that it left me with questions and something to think about.
Amerissiah is about Barry (Matthew Pilieci), a fairly young man who is, aided by his not so young naturalist wife, willingly dying of cancer. In the course of his ailment he has come to believe that he is the messiah. Various family members arrive at Barry's apartment, some playing into his prophetic ideas, some denying them. Playwright Derek Ahonen skillfully raises questions about faith, mortality and morality with complete ease, but it seems that Ahonen is not quite aware of where his skills as a playwright (which he has in abundance) lie.
Instead of fleshing out Barry's character to its fullest extent and exploring his relationships, Ahonen adds supplementary characters and story lines that are very difficult to care about. Barry spends an unreasonable portion of the play off stage, withering away in his bedroom. Unsuccessfully filling the void are his family members: his brother and brother's girlfriend who may or may not be addicts, his sister and her ex-husband who may or may not be in love, and his father who may or may not be going to jail. Additionally, Ahonen uses a certain brand of shock humor throughout the play. Barry's father Johnny (George Walsh) is a racist, and as such does poor impressions of a Chinese accent when ordering Chinese food. Terry (Nick Lawson), a visitor who comes to see the "messiah" late in the first act, proclaims that he can't be racist because his wife is black, but then spends his entire time on stage as a caricature sketch of racism. I assume this isn't intended to be offensive, and it doesn't play as such. It's completely benign, neither offensive nor funny, but having seen it done many, many times in the past, it feels stale and unnecessary.
As an ensemble, the cast powers through the two hours of family squabbling and religious confusion with generous amounts of energy and passion. Pilieci balances Barry's ailment, personality, and delusions masterfully, allowing him to be a fully realized complex character. Additionally, William Apps commands attention every time he steps on stage, and brings a good amount of angst and energy to the role of Barry's brother Ricky. My one and only quibble with the acting is the not-quite uniform, but very thick and distracting, Long Island accent that the entire family adopts. Region appropriate or not, it is grating.
Amerissiah is not a perfect play, but when it is good it is very, very good. Those who believe that theater should be about more than bubble gum spectacle and entertainment won't be disappointed by this thought provoking, multi-layered show.
(Amerissiah plays at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues, through June 28th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for students and can be purchased online at www.Theatre80.org or by calling 212-388-0388. For more information visit www.TheAmoralists.com.)