The Forces That Go Bump in the Night

The phrase “horror comedy” has become anathema to me.  It almost always constitutes the cynical rehashing of genre tropes for the purpose of attracting fans—besides, any horror movie worth its salt knows that there is no horror without comedy, and these products are rarely crafted with any love for genre clichés; it is the same kind of appropriation of nerd culture that has become ubiquitous on television, in fashion, and at the movies.

Derek Ahonen, of course, is the last person we would expect to craft something without love.  His flawed but hilarious play The Bad and the Better was a wonderful sendup of film noir that had me giggling with the glee of recognition; here was a fellow enthusiast, one who has imbibed the genre and had come to recreate the warmth it has provided his life as a viewer.

In many ways, The Cheaters Club is a natural follow up to The Bad and the Better, a Southern ghost story about three unhappily married men and one unhappily married woman who have left New York City to get drunk and get laid in “America’s most haunted city,” Savannah, Georgia.  Tommy (Matthew Pilieci) is the sleazy ringleader, ready to take advantage of any frat girl who’s had one (or two or three) too many vodka shots; Cathy (Cassandra Paras) is his sister, a Northern teetotaler forsaking her sobriety once she hits the South; Jimmy (Byron Anthony) is his gay brother frustrated by hubby Pat who has “a disgusting paunch and the sex drive of a paraplegic”; and Vonn (Jordan Tisdale) is his hesitant colleague, a man who has just caught his wife wandering but is not sure if he’s ready to get even.  Vladimir Anton (Zen Mansley), an actor who once played the title role in a “one-man kabuki production of Uncle Vanya in downtown New York,” is our host, a kind of third-rate, male Elvira who offers supernatural tours of Savannah.  The cast is filled out by twenty-one other characters, including Mama Chaney (Sarah Lemp), the widowed proprietress of a haunted inn, her Lurch-like son Lee (James Rees), and his “hoodoo voodoo” proficient girlfriend Ola May (Serena Miller).

The Abrons Art Center theater is dressed for the occasion, seats strewn with spider webs and ancient, sepia photos of creepy looking children adorning the lobby.  The cast thrusts itself full-throttle into their hammy parts, never making the fatal mistake of winking at the audience—instead, they are all sincerity, Ms. Miller playing a fantastic take on the stereotypical, superstitious Black Southerner while Mr. Rees wobbles his head like a malfunctioning automaton and reads his lines in a low moan that could be an imitation of wind’s soughs.  Though everyone is strong here, Mr. Mansley stands out in his mascaraed eyes and old-fashioned top hat, channeling Roddy McDowall in Fright Night and Robert Prosky in Gremlins 2 with the right mix of exhausted melancholy and histrionic verve.

Like The Bad and the Better, The Cheaters Club sags after the intermission—but who cares?  Most of the horror movies that inspired it also have trouble sustaining their momentum once they reach that pesky problem of resolving all those plot points introduced in the first half.  With The Bad and the Better and now The Cheaters Club, Mr. Ahonen has proved himself a kind of theatrical Tarantino, a playwright who can transform the delicious cheese of late night movies into an original and endlessly watchable artistic voice.

The Cheaters Club runs through September 21st at the Abrons Art Center.  466 Grand Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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