Sprawling yet tightly wound, the Amoralists’ production of Derek Ahonen’s new comedy The Bad and the Better has settled in at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater like a cloud of laughing gas sizzling with electricity. Alfred Schatz’s impressively cluttered, lamplit set serves as many locations, including a New York City police bar overseen by bartender Matilda (superb Amoralists newcomer Cassandra Paras), where much of the action takes place; the office of Detective Lang, a mentally disheveled onetime hero cop (a hilarious William Apps) now banished to a suburban backwater; and a radical bookstore, tended by 19-year-old idealist Faye (the delightful Anna Stromberg), which conceals the headquarters of an anarchist group.
The plot concerns a manipulative real estate developer and kingmaker named Zorn (a fine Clyde Baldo) scheming to take control of waterfront property his family had owned on Long Island, now mega-valuable because it’s the key to a massive source of green energy. (Mr. Ahonen is nothing if now twistedly topical). Meanwhile an intense cop (a coiled David Nash), the type the young Al Pacino might have played, brother of the banished officer and fiancé of the sultry Matilda, has gone undercover as a weak-willed playwright (what else?) to infiltrate the anarchists in hopes of setting them up for arrest by turning their comical demonstrations – they dance in the street to protest Zorn’s new Spanish Harlem mall – violent. With me so far?
The group’s leaders are also being manipulated by a mysterious string-puller. Who is it? And who keeps calling Lang’s house and hanging up when his wife answers – is it his secretary, the loopy Miss Hollis (the ever fabulous Sarah Lemp)? For that matter, who else in this big cast of characters might not be who he seems?
A 21st century noir shot through with stichomythic dialogue and eventually littered with corpses, The Bad and the Better flutters off its moorings towards the end. More than a couple of plot points get lost in the fast action as the playwright’s goal seems to switch from telling a crackling, warped tale of modern obsessions via old tropes to shooting dead as many people as possible. Also, bits of dialogue can get lost, particularly in the rapid-fire accented delivery from Regina Blandón and the even faster speech of the nonetheless winning and impressive Nick Lawson as one of the anarchist group’s gay members.
With all that, the show is a blazingly entertaining, funny ride nearly all the way through. Though director Daniel Aukin hasn’t worked with the Amoralists before, he, like the newcomers among the cast (especially Ms. Paras), takes to the company’s antic comic style like a native son, staging the many quick-shifting scenes with exquisitely timed overlaps aided by Natalie Robin’s clever lighting and Phil Carluzzo’s skill with sound, from muted old jukebox hits to explosions.
Mr. Ahonen has a rare ability to create complex stories that are simultaneously bracing fun and about something. The play comments smartly on capitalist drive, corrupt politics, environmentalism, and Occupy Wall Street among other issues. Even with a jumbo cast the Amoralists maintain their usual standards of high-quality acting and crisp staging, while keeping both the punchy entertainment and the quirky meanings lit throughout. The Bad and the Better runs through July 21 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (in the Playwrights Horizons building) on W. 42 St. For tickets and more information visit the Amoralists’ website.
Photos by Monica Simoes. This page: Nick Lawson and Regina Blandón. Previous page: David Nash and Anna Stromberg.