The Cheaters Club
Written and Directed by Derek Ahonen
The Cheaters Club, a Curtainup review CurtainUp
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A CurtainUp Review
The Cheaters Club
Jordan G. Teicher
"What do you know of this foul sty of a world? This is no longer a world for the debauch man, the loud man... The serpent that seeks to sexually slither. This is a world that celebrates big schools, small feelings and even smaller man flutes. But you sleep well at night don't you? Sound asleep with your unshackled dreams of 'what will.' Never burdened by the maddening knowledge of 'what is.' Or suffocated by the inescapable torture of 'what if."— Vladmir
Wade Dunham, Vanessa Vaché, Zen Mansley, Anna Stromberg, James Kautz. (Photo by Russ Rowland)

Any story of horror and ghosts worth its salt is more than meets the eye. While its populist purpose is to scare and entertain, the goal is always to expose our deepest fears, either as individuals or as a society.

In The Amortalists' supernatural murder mystery, The Cheaters' Club, that purpose is indeed lurking. Amongst the trap doors, spirits and spells of this wild romp of a Southern gothic there's a larger commentary about the demons of race and sexuality in America's past and present. But in this production written and directed Derek Ahonen, those themes take a backseat to the fun, and the effect is that the story treads uncertainly between satire and tribute.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, three siblings and their friend who compose the eponymous Cheaters Club arrive at the Chaney Inn with intent to commit adultery, as they've done annually for years. They couldn't have picked a worse place to stay. While Savannah is something of a tourist trap for ghost hunters, the Chaney Inn appears to be the real deal, a full-on haunted hotel with a murder in its past and secrets still unaired.

It's staffed by the Chaney Family, an eclectic collection of quirky characters: the flirtatious lounge singer, Lana (Kelley Swindall), the deadly serious bartender, Lawrence (David Nash), the stoic bellhop, Lee (James Ree) and the no-nonsense matriarch, Mama (Sarah Lemp). There's an assortment of other characters passing through the Inn, including a wild-eyed practitioner of voodoo magic, a costumed ghost tour leader, and drunken frat boys.

The Cheaters are quickly off to the races. Tommy (Matthew Pilieci) is the loudest of the bunch and most committed to getting laid. Vonn (Jordan Tisdale) is more apprehensive, while Jimmy (Byron Anthony) is hard-pressed to find a fellow gay man with which to exercise his infidelity. Cathy (Cassandra Paras), meanwhile, becomes caught up with dramas back at home. Mostly though, it's a rollicking good time of excessive drinking and bad behavior all around, punctuated by the occasional moment in which the sexuality or race of various characters come to the fore.

But there's clearly something amiss at the hotel, particularly in the forbidden Room 305. Naturally, the Cheaters end up caught in the mess. And when the barriers between the natural and the supernatural come tumbling down, the past literally comes colliding with the present. That's when things get pretty silly. There's body swapping, finger eating, and spell casting, and the laughs here merit the ridiculousness of the situation.

With a cast of 26, it's a tribute to Ahonen that the stage never seems crowded or the plot overstuffed. He's created a large universe for the play, but one that coheres to serve a singular narrative.

The Amoralists and their guests are a talented bunch, and there are a number of excellent performances. Zen Mansley stands out for bringing the seedy, second-hand magic of ghost tour guide Vladimir Anton to showy life. Hair gelled and sporting a Yankee's swagger, Matthew Pilieci is perfect as the insufferable ringleader of the Cheaters. And Kelley Swindall brings out all the stops as the combative, hard-drinking Lana.

For a company that prides itself on complexity and which often warrants its over-the-top plots with heart-felt, emotional centers, The Cheaters Club comes up short. There's a message here, about how, when it comes to social progression, as one character puts it: "Everything's as it always was. It just looks a little different." But theatergoers are more likely to leave the Abrons Arts Center talking about Alfred Schatz's multi-level set, Stephanie Cox-Williams' special effects, or the sheer spectacle of seeing 26 actors on stage than the modern state of marriage or race relations.

The Cheaters' Club may be great popcorn fare, but it is not the stuff of particularly resonant or powerful theater. The overall experience is like that of a haunted house — flashy and full of thrills, but mostly smoke and mirrors.

The Cheaters Club
Written and Directed by Derek Ahonen
Cast: Byron Anthony (Jimmy), Wade Dunham (Pat), James Kautz (Charlie), Sarah Lemp (Mama), Zen Mansley (Vladimir Anton), Serena Miller (Ola May), David Nash (Lawrence), Cassandra Paras (Cathy), Matthew Pilieci (Tommy), James Rees (Lee), Ben Reno (Piano Man), Anna Stromberg (Linda), Jordan Tisdale (Vonn), Vanessa Vache (Susan)
Set Design: Alfred Schatz
Lighting and Projection Design: Brad Peterson
Sound Design: Phil Carluzzo
Costume Design: Niiamar Felder
Choreographer: Katy Correa
Production Stage Manager: Jane Davis
Running Time: 150 minutes with an intermission
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York, NY 10002 (866) 811-4111
Beginning 8/17/2013, opening 8/27/2013, closing 9/12/2013
Performance times: Aug 30, 31, Sep 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19-21 at 8pm; Various performances at 5pm and 3pm
Ticket cost: $50
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at 8/23/2013 performance.
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