History has shown that, on the whole, communes don’t work. It didn’t work in 1791 Paris, it didn’t really work in 1968 Berkeley. And, one would imagine, it sure as hell wouldn’t work in the capitalist paradise of New York City. And today, no less!
This is exactly the subject of Derek Ahonen’s new play with The Amoralists, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, which has just been extended again and moved into its new home at 80 St. Marks. Ahonen has done a fantastic job with the dying art of exciting and tight playwriting; the piece is hilarious, shocking, and intelligent handling its obscure and charming subject matter.
Like a left-wing Real World, the foursome of Billy, Dear, Dawn, and Wyatt live in an enormous flat on the LES, living for free by the good graces of their landlord, Donovan, whilst running the Pied Pipers vegan bakery in the storefront below. And, to be sure, their ideas are beautiful: social liberation, workers’ and animal rights, freedom from oppressive ISAs (yeah, I’m invoking Althusser—got a problem with that?), all the while trying to spread the utopian vision of letting love rule (yeah, I’m invoking Lenny Kravitz—got a problem with that?). The characters are lovely, sympathetic, and very, very real. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the four are a family.
And as Tolstoy has said, every unhappy family is unhappy in their own special ways.
The play takes place over a week, the week that brings this commune to a screeching halt, another tally to join failed communes of the past. And no one is spared: yes, the landlord is greedy and, ultimately underhanded, but the tenants are shown to be exactly the same, perhaps with different goals in mind. But they’re all cut from the same cloth—co-dependent, struggling, and, ultimately, lonely. The struggles that the family goes through on a daily basis fighting cultural hegemony cannot really compete with the basic struggles that all families endure, of loyalty, necessity, and shelter. Can a commune compromise? Especially when, like most communes, it’s doomed to fail?
And while Ahonen’s script is smart, it’s nothing without the tremendous cast—each member gives some of the most powerful and committed work I’ve seen in quite some time. I’d be remiss not to mention James Kautz in particular, who gives a dynamic, exhausting, and non-judgmental portrayal of Billy—addicted to drugs and alcohol, struggling to separate himself from a suburban Iowa childhood, trying to fight the good, political fight.
At its best, Pied Pipers brings a Chekhovian sensibility to these New Yorkers; it strays a bit in the second and third acts at moments when it becomes more of a Shavian polemic, wordy debates on cultural values. It’s the strong actions, characterizations, and conflicts—a classic trifecta, really—that make the piece stand out among the theatre of recent memory.