NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
The “writer as hopeless alcoholic” trope is as old as pen and paper itself. Sadly, that’s probably because it’s couched too much in reality. The question then becomes: how well is the story delivered? Does it shed a new light on the situation, tell it in a compelling fashion, or at least leave us with some sort of hope? The Qualification of Douglas Evans, one half of The Amoralists’ summer repertory and written by Derek Ahonen who also plays the title role, attempts to accomplish those goals; and, at the very least, it’s an interesting ride.
After an introductory, dreamlike scene of confusion and chaos involving all the people in the main character’s life, we finally meet Douglas Evans (Ahonen). He’s a wide-eyed naïf in a rumpled shirt, in a cliché New York City acting class, doing Meisner scenes with a buxom, bright-eyed blonde. She invites him out for drinks with an elicit promise for some excitement to follow. (And follow it does! It should be noted here—for sensitive souls—that the play does not shy away from very sexually explicit language as well as full frontal nudity.) It’s a moment anyone who came of age in New York can recognize: the unexpected, sexually charged romantic connection that starts in a bar and ends a day or two later. It turns Douglas from a boy to a man, but really only with regards to alcohol and sex. He still doesn’t know how to manage his life as an adult. And, as our encounter with his parents shows us, there’s a dangerous history of alcoholism in his family. Sure enough, it catches up to him almost immediately.
But if there’s any truth to the the latin phrase, in vino veritas (“in wine there is truth”), then the truth Douglas’s alcoholism reveals is that he is a jerk. For some reason, however, he is surrounded by cute young women who nonetheless fall madly in love with him. And he tramples over their lives: cheating, lying and indulging in the co-dependence of addiction. Not that any of these women are paragons of mental health themselves, so, of course, one relationship after another ends in ruin. And when Douglas sobers momentarily and turns successful and productive (now as a playwright), he celebrates by drinking again and further abusing the psyches of the people in his life, particularly women.
The story is an uncomfortable and often painful one to witness. But Ahonen’s terrific writing keeps us afloat, as does director James Kautz’s innovative approaches to displaying the chaos of Douglas’ alcohol-addled mind. Scenes shift as in a hallucination, à propos for a heavy drinker, whose life often feels as if it is jumping from scene to scene without a transition. Kautz’s work is especially augmented by David Harwell’s simple yet effective set: a bed that is rotated between scenes (noticeably and symbolically only by the women in the cast) to become another room (bar, classroom, home, etc.) surrounded by columns/doorways; and Brad Peterson’s, sometimes haunting and other times calming (columns at one point are lit to look like a grove of birch trees), lighting.
Certain roles are particularly strong: Kelley Swindall’s Jessica is seductive, sexy and intriguing — we see why Douglas is so captivated; as Kimmy, Mandy Nicole Moore, is a perky, squeaky voiced drunk, whom we love and want to help despite her problem drinking, which makes Douglas’ look like a mere hobby; and Agatha Nowicki’s Robin, whom Douglas meets on what appears to be an Internet date, is so creepily, subtly psychotic (“Yay!” she chirps in uncomfortable, inappropriate moments, like a murderous Lisa Kudrow)—that we want to yell at him to stop and are even afraid to be in the room with her. Ahonen, too, handles his own material with aplomb. As with previous roles (Rantoul and Die) he plays the sad sack to perfection.
The story is not new, neither is the way it’s told. Parts feel, at times, too personal or autobiographical, and things that might seem precious are actually pathetic. But it’s told in an emotional, relatable way with which we can all empathize, whether we’ve had a substance abuse problem or not. And that’s the most important part. We share in Douglas’s experience and live through his pain and recovery, emerging feeling almost as if the experience were our own, thanks to strong acting and terrific writing.
The Qualification of Douglas Evans. Through August 5 at Walker Space (46 Walker Street between Broadway and Church). www.theamoralists.com
*Photos: Russ Rowland