A late report on ‘The Cheaters Club’ & the amazing Sarah Lemp

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cheatersIt was great to see The New York Times include the downtown cult figure Sarah Lemp in its “In Performance” online video series recently.

A mainstream, uptown hit has thus far eluded the actress, but it is only a matter of time before the rest of New York catches on to this striking, powerful, wide-ranging talent.

Lemp has starred in a series of offbeat and demanding plays by The Amoralists, where the house writer (and associate artistic director) Derek Ahonen has had his faith in the actress rewarded with performances that have left audiences wondering if there is any role she can’t play.

From the frustrated, profane working class wife in “Happy in the Poorhouse” to the passionate bohemian restauranteur in “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” to the chilly sex therapist in “Hotel/Motel” Lemp has risen to every demand Ahonen has made on her.

cheaters1The actress took those starring roles and ran with them, but even in a much smaller role, she was able to add spice to the huge ensemble in Ahonen’s “The Bad and the Better” last summer, where her work as a crazy, sexy secretary was outrageously funny.

The latest Amoralists production “The Cheaters Club,” which is running through Saturday at the Abrons Arts Center, is another gigantic Ahonen piece, running two-and-a-half hours, that mashes together supernatural elements with sex comedy and historical drama.

Set in and around a haunted Savannah inn, the play gives an audience so much to look at and absorb — there are more than two dozen characters interacting on an awesome two-level set by Alfred Schatz — that it kills me not to be able to see the show a second time before it closes.

Ahonen brings a unique film-fed sensibility to the stage. “The Bad and the Better” felt like a cross between “Three Days of the Condor” and “Shampoo” and the new one often plays like a Roman Polanski story as told by Robert Altman.

Holding the many disparate elements together is Lemp in the very demanding role of Mama Chaney, who rules over the Cheney Inn and her disturbed children as a quartet of swingers arrives from New York City to take a break from their spouses back home.

Lemp has to deliver more than one exposition-heavy speech in “The Cheaters Club,” but she makes Ahonen’s crazy, scary story feel all too real (when was the last time you almost jumped out of your seat at a play?).

Before the show is over, the seemingly conservative and restrained Mama Chaney has seduced guests and performed a reverse exorcism — among other outrageous acts — but Lemp never breaks a sweat.

It would be truly awful if Ahonen lost his muse to the commercial theater world, but what I wouldn’t give to see this extraordinary actress tackle the classics with other Manhattan companies and to see what sparks she might strike with other writers and directors.

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Joe Meyers

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