Dark humor: The act of making something funny that would otherwise only be taken seriously, frequently promoting laughter at situations that would usually provoke pity or sadness. The term is frequently misused to describe a wide variety of off-color or otherwise taboo-breaking plays and movies that never really challenge the audience to laugh at the suffering and the sacred.
New York has a small theatre company, The Amoralists, that is a master of dark humor and their current production of “Rantoul and Die” is among their best (at least of the five productions I have seen). The key to this company’s unique appeal is found in their title: The “A-moralists.“ Their work is not immoral (although it can get pretty racy at times); it is simply devoid of morals. They liberate their topics from the judgments that accompany morality and, in the process, allow the audience to see (and enjoy) human foibles as natural, inescapable qualities of life. Their plays frequently take things to the extreme, but in an amoral world, what determines extreme?
“Rantoul and Die” tells the story of four characters we might describe as low life: Rallis and Debbie’s marriage is on the rocks leading him into suicidal tendencies and her into the arms of his best friend, a fast talking self-obsessed wise-guy who has his own marital problems. Eventually we meet Debbie’s boss at the Dairy Queen where she works, Callie, a cat lover who whose greatest pleasure is helping the helpless (human or feline). While this hardly sounds like the makings of near hysterical laughter, the comedy comes from the brilliance of this company’s mastery of dark humor. As Rallis rants, “trying to kill myself ain’t no way to live!”
This play is written and directed by two new members of the Amoralists team, Mark Roberts and Jay Stull, respectively. And they have no trouble fitting in with this company’s oeuvre. At the center of the piece is Derek Ahonen as Rallis, a weak louse driven to self-mutalization by the rejection of his undying love for Debbie. Mr. Ahonen is The Amoralists most prolific (and until now most representative) playwright and director. While Messrs.’ Roberts and Stull do not threaten his role with the company (his new play, The Cheaters Club, is their next production), I can only hope that these two talents have found a place at the table for future collaborations. As an actor, Mr. Ahonen has the most challenging part – playing a hopelessly forlorn, clinically depressive, and understandably rejected lover – and while he works hard at displaying Rallis’ broken heart and total denial, his performance is just a little bit too mannered to be believable. Matthew Pilieci as Rallis’ best friend (albeit a traitor who is having an affair with Debbie) is obnoxious and caring and his character is always aggressively present when he shouldn’t be.
Sarah Lemp, like Mr. Pilieci, is a core member of the company. She brings amazing dimension to the central role of Debbie. Without spoiling the play’s very sad but very funny plot turns, Debbie is a character who goes through a major transformation and Ms. Lemp handles this arc with amazing subtlety and insight. She moves the audience from the uncomfortable position of laughing at very disturbing circumstances to feelings of compassion and identification with those conditions. Vanessa Vache is totally convincing as the dedicated caregiver, Callie, who has a secret that is anything but a reflection of caring.
The play is really about responsibility – the unwillingness to assume it and the inability to escape it. Dark humor has a strange effect – it makes us laugh at things that we know should not be laughed at. Like most humor, we have a physical and verbal response before our minds can sort out the appropriateness of that response. After laughing at dark humor, we feel guilty; we feel responsible or, more accurately with black comedy, we feel irresponsible for laughing. In this play, the medium is the message. The people have qualities that only distance the observer from their situations. The humor forces our involvement. We are implicated.
This play is not for everybody. You have to be willing to lower your defense mechanisms and “go with the flow.” But it is very entertaining and, in the end, it not only challenges our funny bones to laugh at the wrong things, but also, in the process, cuts to the bone of a human condition known as responsibility. On the door at the entrance of the Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre a sign is posted: “This production features smoking, gunshots, and lots of amoral behavior.” Head the warning, but see the play!