Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THEATER: The Bad and the Better

Photo/Monica Simoes
"I'll have like this different level thing going for me where like the revolutionaries are all sentimental lovers and they all die because of it. It'll really just be a story about love but it'll be somewhat disguised as a cautionary tale about the hypocrisies of extreme principles." So says Venus (David Nash), a man who once wrote a play about anarchists, "The Sad Singers on Stanton Street," and who now hopes to use the impressionable and irrepressible young Faye (Anna Stromberg) to help him gain entree (and authenticity) to her anarchist friends: organizers Justice (James Kautz) and Charity (Selene Beretta); hacker Scotty (Nick Lawson) and his peaceful, foreign lover Edmond (Chris Wharton); and the violent revolutionary Inez (Regina Blandon) and her punk-poseur beau Nino (Byron Anthony). Oh, adds Venus, he'll have to avoid guns ("Nobody likes gun death on stage") and large casts, since the only thing producers hate more than expensive blanks is a big cast.

As you can probably guess -- considering that Derek Ahonen, resident playwright of the Amoralists, is best known for his arrestingly good anarchist-lite family drama The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, his comically exaggerated, somewhat cautionary tales of love (Happy in the Poorhouse, Amerissiah), and his epic-in-size casts -- Venus's speech is both a foreshadowing device and a tongue-in-cheek commentary. And like The Bad and the Better itself, it's filled with angst, layers, absurdity, and -- the beating heart beneath it all -- truth. If it's not exactly subtle, who cares: Ahonen's an angry, ambitious, and intense playwright, and you can't be explosive without being a bit messy, too. And, to be fair, the political machinations of the super-rich -- represented here by developer Zorn (Clyde Baldo) -- and legislative idiocy of our representatives -- seen here as the dodo-like Eugene Moretti (David Lanson), who's more concerned with comedy than policy -- aren't exactly subtle in the real world, either. 

As The Bad and the Better continues, the stakes grow increasingly high (and almost implausibly interconnected, except that Ahonen's working in extremes): Venus is actually an undercover NYPD officer, looking to entrap the anarchists, and his girlfriend Matilda (Cassandra Paras), who runs a cop bar, isn't always understanding of his duties and absences. Venus's brother, Ricky (William Apps), is a washed-up detective, whose nagging wife and teenager daughter (Judy Merrick and Sarah Roy) are driving him to have an affair with his all-too-pliable (and stalker-like) secretary, Miss Hollis (Sarah Lemp), all of which is distracting him from properly investigating a string of odd murder-suicides that may be connected to Zorn. And then there's Julio (Jordan Tisdale), a new cop who's obsessed with Rick's "legendary" killing of three robbers, even though their unloaded guns are what shunted to a remote detective position in the first place. 

Given the scope, it's hard to say whether the play would be improved by trimming some of the excesses (a lengthy conversation between three oafish cops about how to keep a woman from cheating on you) or if those excesses are the play itself -- after all, as Eugene puts it in a campaign advertisement, we're all familiar with those movies that are so bad they become good. And, above all else, shouldn't a play about anarchists be, you know, a little chaotic? It's all at least presently nicely, with scenes layered atop other scenes both in the script and through resident designer Alfred Schatz's set, which conflates a bar, office, bookstore, and several alleyways into a singular space. But while Daniel Aukin manages to keep up the energy nicely (to the point where it appears he's been working with veteran Amoralists like Lemp and Lawson all along), a few too many scenes wind up veiled in darkness, something that worked in the more sedentary 4000 Miles, but less so in the hectic The Bad and the Better. Then again, the final image he works into the play is a good one: the road for good, bad, and better intentions is paved with bodies, no?

The Bad and the Better is profane without quite being profound and too antic to ever feel authentic, but it's interesting, often uproarious, and always entertaining. Those lured in by the title or reputation of the company will not be disappointed.

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