This freak flag has already flown


By Jennifer O’Reilly

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

Written and drirected by Derek Ahonen

Through November 25

Gene Frankel Theater

24 Bond St., near Lafayette

(212-777-1767; genefrankel.com)

The Amoralist Theater Company’s production of “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” is a play about what happens when a group of free-love sixties children have to deal with the realities of a free-market world and a society that is less accepting of them than they are of it.

Wyatt, Billy, Dawn, and Dear are a modern day sexual tribe — two guys and two girls living together in an arrangement that satisfies all their primal needs. They live in an apartment in the Lower East Side, which is happily provided by them by their wealthy benefactor, Donovan (Tom Bain), who assuages his guilt from being part of the upper classes by running a vegan restaurant and sponsoring revolutionaries. In exchange for their room and board, Wyatt (Matthew Pilieci) and Dear (Sarah Fraunfelder) must manage and run the counter at the restaurant downstairs. Dawn provides the gang with some extra cash by playing obscure Rolling Stones songs on the street and Billy bolsters the group’s social conscience by running a counter-culture newspaper.

The plot thickens when Billy’s preppy brother Evan (Nick Lawson) arrives for a visit, unaware that his brother is involved in a polyamorous relationship with individuals of both genders. Soon the foursome attempts to free the mind of their Iowa-raised, über-conservative visitor through methods such as parading around the apartment naked, staging a John and Yoko inspired “bed-in”, and long-winded lectures explaining the evils of market-driven capitalism.

Part way through impromptu “bed-in”, Donovan arrives with some grim news. He has sold the restaurant and the apartment, ostensibly to raise the capital to open more vegan restaurants. Without Donovan’s sponsorship, the group’s very core is tested, as they struggle to find a way to make their tribal life work outside of the confines of their L.E.S. love nest.

The eviction storyline of the second act is almost identical to that of the ’90s blockbuster musical “Rent,” in which singing bohemians refuse to pay for their living space and are evicted by their former friend. Its basic premise could also be compared to Lucas Moodysen’s landmark film “Together,” about a 1970s commune in Sweden. But both “Rent” and “Together” have a whimsical humor that is missing from “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side.” These characters take themselves altogether too seriously, believing that their anti-establishment lifestyles can take away problems such as Wyatt’s fear of death or Billy’s addiction to drugs. They seem to consider themselves pioneers of open-mindedness, but in New York City, the reality is that they’re just one of many individuals living alternative lifestyles. (See poly-nyc.com.)

The play’s major flaw is that it feels distinctly rooted in a different time and place altogether — more like the late 1960s than 2007. Though there are subtle hints that the play is contemporary (cell phones, for example), it still feels very disconnected from the post-9/11, present day. These characters seem too optimistic for such a cynical world. They play records and burn incense, but they never (or rarely) make mention of modern dilemmas like Guantanamo Bay or the genocide in Darfur or even global warming. Billy is in constant contact with an associate from his newspaper who is covering a dangerous uprising in Mexico, but he never appears to acknowledge the existence of foreign countries ravaged by U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” has three separate acts and runs more than two and a half hours. Much of that time is spent exploring how to spread love and open the minds of a rigid world. It’s clear that playwright Derek Ahonen and the Amoralist Theater Company are passionate about the ideals espoused in the play. The play is ultimately undone by the same thing that seems to hold back its main characters — too much rhetoric and not enough action.