What a bizarre, wonderful first act. Derek Ahonen’s new play, The Bad and the Better, opens with a breathless series of intertwined vignettes, each an ironic sendup of hardboiled fiction: there’s the alcoholic detective who hates his wife (William Apps), the secretary who is secretly in love with him (Sarah Lemp), the misogynistic undercover cop (David Nash) and his sweetheart (Cassandra Paras) who turns a blind eye to his philandering. The city, of course, is being clandestinely run by a whiskey-swilling capitalist (Clyde Baldo) who is trying to get an amiable doofus (David Lanson) elected as the next governor of New York. Meanwhile, a group of in-fighting anarchists plot the revolution. Collectively, it plays like an episode of Twin Peaks or a Hal Hartley film, for the irony is not snarky but affectionate—The Bad and the Better basks in all its soapy glory.
By the second act, however, Mr. Ahonen begins to lose both narrative and tonal control of his play. Confusions about motives and plotlines are perfectly acceptable in this noir context, confusions about intent less so. The Bad and the Better is billed as “a cautionary tale about the hypocrisy of extreme principles,” and it’s hard to tell by the end whether this is meant in earnest or not, whether he is actually trying to educate as well as entertain. If it is meant to be political, then its insights are rather bland and uninteresting. If it’s just a joke, then it very abruptly ceases to be funny. The Bad and the Better works as long as it is playing with genre clichés, but when it begins to adopt a heavier thematic tone, it loses its power. Ultimately, Mr. Ahonen’s writing becomes less clear, less deliberate, and he sacrifices a stellar setup to a rather lackluster conclusion.
Still, this enormous cast is phenomenal, so pitch-perfect across the board that it is difficult to single anybody out. To pull off lines like, “You really hate women, don’t you?” or “Alcoholics tend to like alcohol and alcohol tends to get people in trouble with their wives,” you need a rare type of sincerity in your actors—actors who know their lines are ridiculous but who deliver them as if they didn’t. Here, the Amoralists Theatre Company has assembled at least a dozen such players, a feat that is almost unbelievable.
And Mr. Ahonen really is an excellent writer when he hits his stride. Perhaps the best moment of the night belongs to Eugene Moretti, who is asking the people of New York to vote him into office. His most ingenious campaign ad: “Terrorism is bad. It’s so bad that it went beyond good and back to bad again. Like a bad movie that’s so bad it’s good. Except it’s not good. It’s bad. Bad like a bad movie that just stays bad. It stays bad and you wonder, ‘Hey, could this be so bad that it’s good?’ So I say, ‘Maybe it’s good.’ But then I say, ‘No. It’s just bad.’ ” It’s times like these when The Bad and the Better is at its best: light but meticulously constructed, satirical but not political, highly intelligent and irresistibly entertaining.
The Bad and the Better runs through July 21st at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. 416 W. 42nd Street New York, NY.