Since the spring of 2007, the Amoralists have been presenting challenging productions marked by bold strokes of black comedy and absurdity, avoiding predictable, conventional narrative paths. The two-part HotelMotel took place in a bedroom in the Gershwin Hotel, The Bad and the Better was an avant-noir that featured no fewer than twenty-six actors playing thirty-three roles in the small Peter Jay Sharp Theater, while The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side involved a much-talked-about nude scene. In their latest show, Emily Schwend’s Utility, which opened last night at the Rattlestick, they have come up with yet another surprise: a wonderfully touching, beautifully subtle drama about love, family, and the everyday struggles to just get by in East Texas. Amoralists cofounder and president James Kautz plays Chris, a recovering pill popper and ne’er-do-well who wants to reunite with his estranged wife, Amber (Vanessa Vache), and the kids. Amber is the central figure, the conflicted heart of the story, working two jobs while juggling myriad household and child-care responsibilities, including preparing for a big birthday party for her eight-year-old daughter, Janie. Meanwhile, Chris is of only ineffectual help, occasionally called in to work a few days a week at a local joint while also helping his older brother, Jim (Alex Grubbs), fix the water damage that forced everyone out of their house in the first place. “C’mon now. It’ll be easier this way,” Chris pleads. “Right. It’ll be easier, till it ain’t easier no more. . . . ’Cause I don’t got the energy to hate you. I am just done with the bullshit, okay?” Amber says. Chris claims he’s a changed man, so they decide to give it another try. Amber gets reluctant help from her mother, Laura (Melissa Hurst), who lives just down the street, while Jim hangs around with very little to say about anything. As the party approaches, problems pile up, mainly because of Chris’s hapless negligence, and Amber begins to seriously doubt her decisions.
Schwend (The Other Thing, South of Settling), who hails from Texas, has created an involving little slice-of-life tale that could really take place anytime, anywhere. But Kate Noll’s kitchen set seems right out of the 1970s, with an old Peanuts lunchbox, a dilapidated microwave, a canister of iced-tea mix, and white aluminum siding. (The props are by Zach Serafin.) Director Jay Stull (the Amoralists’ Rantoul and Die, Schwend’s Take Me Back) gives plenty of space for the story to breathe in and breathe out at a naturalistic pace, giving equal weight to whatever is going on; there are no shocking twists, no sudden jolts of action, just everyday life going on, with all of the pitfalls and at least some of the dreams. The cast is led by a particularly gorgeous turn by Amoralists veteran Vache (Rantoul and Die, HotelMotel, The Bad and the Better), who commands the stage with a bittersweet presence; when she sits down at the kitchen table and has a cigarette, you can see her mind hard at work, trying to figure out if she is ever going to get out of the hole she and her family are in. Kautz (The Other Thing, Take Me Back, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side) imbues Chris with just enough of a smidgen of possibility and usefulness so that you can root for him even though you know he’s a luckless, though well-meaning, loser, while Grubbs (SeaWife, These Seven Sicknesses) adds a dose of dark humor with his ever-so-brief, deep-voiced dialogue. Utility reveals another, gentler side of the Amoralists, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful than its wilder, crazier productions.