At age 29, Astoria resident Derek Ahonen must surely be among the youngest playwrights currently represented on the Off Broadway boards, courtesy of his latest creation, “Happy in the Poorhouse,” a comedy that has been receiving a great deal of positive attention from theatergoers and the critical press since its recent opening at Theatre 80 St. Marks in the East Village.
As if that weren't enough, he's also the productions director, as well as a founding member of The Amoralists, the theater company that is presenting the piece.
According to their mission statement, The Amoralists produce “work of no moral judgment.”
“Dedicated to an honest expression of the American condition, our actor-driven ensemble explores complex characters of moral ambiguity. We seek to initiate a dialogue between artists and audience, putting theater in the heart of our community,” the company writes on its website.
From the moment the curtain parts on “Happy in the Poorhouse,” revealing a realistic depiction of an apartment on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, the company’s mission becomes evident. In what is truly an ensemble piece, it is left to audience members to evaluate the decisions of the characters. There is no clear cut “right” or “wrong,” and all choices are fraught and complicated.
The energy of the cast cascades across the footlights and never lags throughout the play's nearly two-hour running time.
The source of much of that energy can undoubtedly be traced to Ahonen. In a recent telephone conversation, he sounded as enthusiastic as an adventurer embarking on a maiden voyage, though this production actually marks his sixth for the company.
“I just like theater people,” he said. “They're people building together to make something. I still can walk into any theater and feel warm and nice.”
Ahonen’s adoration of the stage began in his childhood when his mother, who ran a children's theater in his native Illinois, put him “in every single play.”
He arrived in New York about a decade ago, fresh out of high school, and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met a couple of fellow would-be actors named James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci. The men formed a bond and, along with it, a new theater company.
The Amoralists theater company was created during an automobile ride to Las Vegas when Ahonen, Kautz and Pilieci set out to win $50,000 to start the group. Though the collaborators ended up losing their money, they forged ahead with their theatrical plans.
“We wanted to see a certain aesthetic in the theater that we weren't seeing,” “We wanted to present stories that were warm and truthful,”Ahonen said, citing the works of Clifford Odets as an inspiration.
He also admires the more edgy works of playwrights such as Miguel Pinero and, particularly, John Guare, whose play, “The House of Blue Leaves,” he considers the “gold standard,” being both funny and sad at the same time. Ahonen tries to incorporate that same complex mixture of emotions into his own works.
“I spend a great deal of time giving my characters heart and soul,” he said. “I want the audience to have the same affinity for the characters that I have.”
Indeed, in a director’s note he states, “I really care about these characters. I hope you really care about them, too.” Ahonen said he includes that written message in all programs for his shows.
While there is something tender about Ahonen’s love and protection of his characters, critics have on occasion accused him of being “too autonomous.”
Though Ahonen both writes and directs his own work, he sees his dual positions as an advantage. “As the director, I have complete power to change the script without having to consult the writer,” he explained.
“Actors have a great sense of what's real and what isn't,” he said, adding that “if something is off in the writing,” he'll discover it during the rehearsal process.
“We're all in the mud together,” he said.
“Happy in the Poorhouse,” described in a tag line as ”an unsanitized story of love and sex,” centers around Paulie, an aging would-be boxing contender.As the play begins, he and his wife, Mary, are preparing a welcome-home party for his best friend, Petie, a war hero who also happens to be Mary's ex-husband.
As the evening progresses, an assortment of other amusing characters arrives, each adding complications to the situation.
“The plays on our stage are cast with the best actors I know,” Ahonen said. “I can direct them exactly the way that I want. We have exactly the product we want without any compromise.”
The formula is apparently working. “We started out in a 30-seat black box theater,” he explained.The group has since moved on several occasions, each time to a larger house.Through its first three seasons —The Amoralists was officially formed in November of 2006— the company has produced six original full-length plays.One of them, “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side,” was named to numerous top ten Lists in 2009.
Ahonen, of Italian and Finnish descent, has lived in Astoria for the past nine years, calling it “a great place to work and to live.”
“It's my favorite neighborhood,” he said.“The people are nice. There are lots of kids in the street playing ball. I like the names of the stores.”
He even incorporates some of those names into his plays, as he does the names of people he has met in the area.
“It reminds me of the suburbs, but it's close to the city,” he said.
As for the future, Ahonen admits Broadway is the ultimate goal.
“We want to try to reach the largest audience in the shortest time,” he said. “We're trying to reach as much of America as we possibly can.”
The group's next production, opening June 3, will be Ahonen's “Amerissiah,” about a dying man who is convinced he is God. The season will wrap up in November with “Ghosts in the Cottonwoods,” the New York premiere of a play written and directed by Adam Rapp.
‘Happy in the Poorhouse’
When: March 25- 29 and April 1-5 all shows at 8 p.m. except Sunday shows at 5 p.m.
Where: Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, Manhattan
Tickets: $40. For further information, call (212) 388-0388