Kind of Like Making Cupcakes

In the decaying, Midwestern town of Rantoul, Illinois, the word “tenderhearted” seems to really mean “sissy.”  Rallis (Derek Ahonen) is tenderhearted.  Fresh out of a marriage that is clearly over to everyone except Rallis, he spends his days moaning on the couch, eating handfuls of off-brand Fruit Loops, and seeking solace in the wisdom of his friend Gary (Matthew Pilieci).  This is probably a bad decision, and not just because Gary is sleeping with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Debbie (Sarah Lemp).  Sporting a Miami Heat cap and a goatee that surely reeks of cigarettes and beer, Gary is a self-described student of Eastern “philosophies.”  He is an odd mix of earnestness, self-reflection, violent immaturity, and idiocy, so it comes as no surprise when, late in the play, he begins a sentence by saying, “As I was laying on top of you, choking the life out of you, I realized…”  Debbie is “full time at the DQ” and not really a terrible person; she’s just being suffocated by Rallis’ impotent kindness.  After a botched suicide attempt—that involves not one but two barely-missed shots to the head—Rallis is left a vegetable, and the general manager of the DQ, Callie (Vanessa Vaché), comes by to help out.  She’s a Jesus freak who lives with her mom and is kept afloat by a sea of cats (fourteen by the latest count) with a perky, annoyingly positive demeanor.

Mark Roberts’ Rantoul and Die is a good choice for the Amoralists, a theater group that is bursting with ideas and stylistic ingenuity but rarely produces a consistent, cohesive work.  Rantoul may be that work.  It’s an hysterical, dark comedy whose tone and subtext never drowns out its characters and their problems.  The details are spot on, like when Gary starts eating one of those gross peanut butter and jelly swirls out of the jar with chop sticks, or when Callie, always eager to help, uses an all purpose cleaner to spray a smiley face onto a table, proudly chuckles to herself, and then continues to wipe up the mess.

Mr. Ahonen, a frequent Amoralists playwright, is fantastic as Rallis.  His helplessness is relentless; rarely moving from his spot on the couch, his eyes lazily blink their way around the room and his mouth slowly but mechanically chomp down on the cereal as if, in this time of darkness, he must re-learn the most basic of human functions.  Mr. Pilieci’s swaggering is quite funny and Ms. Lemp manages a wonderful transformation from the ready-to-be-free Debbie of act one to the beaten-down-by-life Debbie of act two.  And Ms. Vaché steals most of her scenes; she’s so chipper you want to punch her in the face.

Rantoul and Die begins with Gary tells us a story about the time he finally got a chance, years afterwards, to sleep with a “stone-cold fox” that he lusted after in high school—she was above his social circle, went to college, and married “a husband who was Jewish, rich, and wore a suit that cost more than my car.”  But at their twenty year reunion, she reenters his life, divorced and with a dead tooth.  They drunkenly make their way back to the Holiday Inn, and the moment things get started, she vomits all over his penis.  The title is worth considering: Rantoul and Die, as if the two words are synonymous.  These are people who will never leave their awful town, who will never accomplish anything, and who will not be remembered after their funerals.  With this premise, Mr. Roberts has managed to write a rather exceptional—and ultimately tenderhearted—comedy.

Rantoul and Die runs through July 20th at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  38 Commerce Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 40 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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