An Italian guy, a gay guy, a black guy, and a girl show up in Savannah looking for action. If that sounds like the setup for a bad joke, it is—or rather, it’s the setup for two and a half hours of bad jokes courtesy of the Amoralists in their new production, The Cheaters Club, written and directed by Derek Ahonen and now playing at Abrons Arts Center.
The club—composed of Tommy (Matthew Pilieci), Jimmy (Byron Anthony), Cathy (Cassandra Paras), and Vonn (Jordan Tisdale)—takes frequent vacations to blow off marital steam. This time, they plan to indulge their adulterous sides at the Chaney Inn, a creaky vestige of the Old South, draped in moss and seething with secrets. Before long, though, the frisky New Yorkers are tied up (ahem, literally) in the family drama of the innkeeper, Mama Chaney (Sarah Lemp), who’s busy resurrecting a racy past (again, literally) involving her dead husband and her mostly dead African-American lover. (She’s a cheater, too, it seems.) Soon, a voodoo-infused supernatural showdown is underway. Between scenes, we witness snippets of a knockoff Savannah ghost tour, meant to frighten tourists (and add exposition).
The staples of Ahonen’s stagecraft—like past Amoralists fare—are screeching and stereotypes: In every scene, we’re invited to snicker at high-decibel defamations of all races, genders, political constituencies, and sexual orientations. (Ahonen also enjoys repetition, alliteration, and showy strings of adjectives: If you miss an ethnic slur, don’t worry; it’ll be shouted again soon, probably louder.) Such ecumenical invective might be refreshing if it were also funny or insightful—as it is, it’s mostly a series of cheap shots that adds up to a depressingly ungenerous view of humanity.
Worse, as it unfolds, The Cheaters Club turns out to be the shallowest kind of historical allegory: it seems we’re meant to see the haunted Chaney Inn as a metaphor for America—tormented by an unjust past—and Mama Chaney’s undead lover as a symbol of recurring racial oppression. But gesturing to history isn’t the same as commenting on it, and when Ahonen grasps at gravitas (“I am America,” a local tells the tourists), the tacky jokes only seem tackier. In the end, at $50 a ticket, it’s the audience who’s getting cheated.