The Bad and the Better
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 16, 2012
If, like me, you are craving theatre that is cutting-edge and contemporary—that confronts some of the fundamental issues facing us as a nation and society right now—then you will want to see The Amoralists' terrific new show The Bad and the Better. This fine new drama by Derek Ahonen is riveting and relevant: a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat thriller that's as current as your latest Facebook status update—and almost certainly way cooler.
It takes place in New York City and on Long Island, between the Fourth of July and Halloween of (apparently) the current year. The main characters in the story are the two Lang Brothers, Rick and Chuck, both of whom are cops. Rick was once hailed as a hero after single-handedly taking out three would-be attackers in a bar years ago; he's now working as a detective in a remote Long Island beach community. Chuck is undercover. Together they become embroiled in a complicated set of cases involving corruption in the highest reaches of government and industry.
So many of the benchmarks of the way we live today are reflected back at us in Ahonen's script. There's an Occupy Wall Street-esque band of pseudo-anarchists. There's a controversy over harnessing an economically lucrative but environmentally devastating energy resource. There's an opportunistic politician in the pocket of Big Business, and a clueless TV journalist reporting on all of the above with foolish equanimity.
There's an FBI man in the mix, too; and there are also people falling in and out of love with each other.
Who can be trusted? Who really is who they say they are? I'm certainly not saying. In the best tradition of writers from Hammett to Ludlam, Ahonen keeps us guessing as his story unfolds at a feverish pace; seeing The Bad and the Better is like riding a roller coaster except you probably won't scream at the top of your lungs. Sure, you're secure in your seat...but when you leave the theater, you may well look twice at all of the strangers around you in Times Square just in case.
The Bad and the Better has a cast of some 26 actors—astonishing in and of itself these days—all of whom contribute excellent performances. I'll mention a few who made particularly strong impressions on me: William Apps as Rick Lang; Nick Lawson as Scotty, one of the OWS protesters; Cassandra Paras as Matilda, the bartender at a downtown saloon catering exclusively to cops; Judy Merrick as Rick's angry wife Connie; Anna Stromberg as Faye, another protester, who is also manager of a revolutionary bookshop; and David Nash as Venus, a playwright who is researching the anarchist movement for an upcoming work and finds himself falling for Faye (and she for him).
Alfred Schatz's stark, naturalistic set—where all the play's locales are essentially mashed together, coexisting on the Peter Jay Sharp stage—is superb; ditto costumes by Moria Clinton, lighting by Natalie Robin, and sound by Phil Carluzzo. Daniel Aukin's staging is generally taut and brisk, though a few places where it veers into stylization don't always feel in sync with Ahonen's hyper-realistic writing.
The Bad and the Better is a triumph for The Amoralists, a smart and audacious company that I've been following since their founding several years ago; and for Ahonen, whose best play to date this may very well be. What I love most about it is its immediacy: we're not journeying backward in time to revisit some classic work, nor are we journeying inward to investigate somebody's sad or angsty psyche. No, this play is looking squarely at the here and now, with clear eyes and a sharp perspective—which is all too rare, lately, on the New York stage.