Friday, July 6, 2012

“The Bad and the Better” from The Amoralists

By Olivia Jane Smith
Cops who shoot first and plant loaded guns on their victims later. Developers who commit mass murder to realize a dream of clean energy. Peace-loving anarchists who agree to commit violent crimes rather than run out of the cash they need in order to survive.
There’s more: Husbands betray wives, undercover agents pose as lovers—cheating on the real loves of their lives in the process—and no one can be certain which side anyone’s really on. Then the bodies start to pile up so fast we might as well be in Act V of a Shakespeare tragedy.
Welcome to Derek Ahonen’s “The Bad and the Better,” currently showing in a physically superb production by The Amoralists, thanks largely to Alfred Schatz’ set design, Natalie Robin’s lights, and some virtuosic staging by director Daniel Aukin. While the show looks great and, with 26 actors, wows in terms of sheer size, the script’s attempt to veer from tragedy to comedic satire to serious moral commentary doesn’t entirely work.
It may be possible to pull this off. But here, the heightened send-ups—of police, politicians, secretaries, people from Long Island—make it impossible to take a lot of the drama seriously, which the show seems to be asking us to do. It’s billed as a “detective noir.” While films of the genre can read like parody, coming off as unintentionally funny to our modern eyes, they’re played straight up (which is how they manage to make us chuckle without losing their dramatic edge). That may be partly what went awry here. Some characters seem written only for laughs, and come off as caricatures. In trying to tackle serious themes in what can feel like a comic-book style, the show doesn’t earn its more earnest moments. We’re left with a fairly entertaining evening, but not one that makes much of a dramatic impact.
Another problem is that we can see many (though not all) of the twists coming, and the show’s moral conundrums aren’t such conundrums at all—or at least, the play doesn’t illuminate them in a way that really causes us to think deeply about whether it’s worth it to commit a triple murder to avenge your family’s death, or to go corporate if the corporation is one that makes the world a better place. And with few exceptions, most of the 20-plus characters we meet aren’t people you’d want to be your new best friend. Of the poles in the show’s title, “better” is substantially underrepresented among this bunch.
One of the few “better” ones is Matilda (Cassandra Paras), who tends an immaculately rendered bar—right down to the handwritten credit card minimum poster, a pay phone, and a “No Spitting” sign on the restroom door—that is known as a place frequented exclusively by members of the NYPD. Her boyfriend is a cop, of course, though he’s on an undercover assignment and she hasn’t seen him in a while. His brother, Lang (William Apps), is also a cop of the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe ilk. His rather too devoted secretary, Miss Hollis (Sarah Lemp) makes sure to replace the empty whiskey bottle in his drawer with a full one. His wife, Connie (Judy Merrick) and daughter Julie (Sarah Roy) are minor characters here, which is good, because they’re written and played as such depressing and predictable stereotypes that we wouldn’t want to see much more of them.
We also meet the improbably named Venus (David Nash), a playwright studying up on the habits of student protestors by haunting an anarchist bookstore where he meets Faye (Anna Stromberg, in my favorite performance of the night—she struck the right chord, sincere and heightened at once, of the best of the film noir genre). She leads him to a den of neon-wearing professional demonstrators, lead by Charity (Selene Beretta) and Justice (James Kautz), a stoic wonder-twin duo of potential mayhem. They’re the ones calling the anarchists’ shots, but who is really pulling the strings, via pay phone calls that can’t be traced?
There is also the requisite evil businessman, real estate developer Zorn (Clyde Baldo) and the gubernatorial candidate in his pocket, Moretti (David Lanson); written as pure parody, the character adds little to the show. And people keep dying on in a nature preserve on Long Island. Is it a plot to wrest control of a vital piece of coastline? (I’m thinking yes.)
But for all the show’s missteps, there are also some strokes of brilliance. Ahonen’s weaving together of so many characters and cleverly plotted turns and reveals can be a fun ride, especially when combined with Aukin’s adept staging. A dance-protest scene begins with the band of anarchists moving in slow motion at the very front of the playing area, in silence (their movement to me evoked a chain gang, or a group of slaves about to be auctioned). Suddenly, the picture bursts into real time, music blaring and everyone dancing up to speed. Simultaneously, Matilda and the cops at the bar are watching the action unfold on TV, leading to an unpleasant revelation, before the protest devolves into a chaotic fight with police. The series of moments is so well directed, and executed; it’s an exciting piece of theater muscle and magic.
Schatz’s set is just as impressive, managing with almost no moving around of furniture to evoke a bar, a bookstore, a detective’s office, an anarchists’ lair, and various other apartments and dimly lit offices. It’s a tall order, especially when all of it is so richly detailed, from bottles to books. I also counted more than 20 lamps glowing through their shades during pre-show. Then, in the opening scene, Matilda flicks on the lights in the bar, and instantly the space is transformed, with colored lanterns hanging above the libations, and holiday twinkle lights crisscrossing the space’s ceiling. Later, in an early party scene, the back wall of the space is suddenly illuminated—it’s bright yellow, instantly changing the entire space. It’s easy to forget how the right set and lights can create their own drama and surprise. Here, they came close to stealing the show. (Moira Clinton’s costumes were also strong; Phil Carluzzo did the sound design, and Judy Merrick designed the props).
“The Bad and the Better” is cleverly plotted and at its best, engaging. The ensemble cast is mostly good, and the show is worth seeing for the direction and scenery alone. If there is a takeaway it’s that we’re pretty much all awash in moral ambiguity by the time we get out of bed every morning (or even if we don’t). But then again, most of us knew that already.
From left, Selene Beretta, Chris Wharton, Regina Blandón,
Nick Lawson, Byron Anthony, David Nash, Anna Stromberg

THE BAD AND THE BETTER, presented by The Amoralists
through July 21, 2012
The Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Written by Derek Ahonen
Directed by Daniel Aukin
The Cast (in alphabetical order)
Byron Anthony NINO
William Apps LANG
Clyde Baldo ZORN
Selene Beretta CHARITY
Penny Bittone LENNY
Regina Blandon INEZ
Wade Dunham COP 3
Edgar Eguia COP 1
James Kautz JUSTICE
Chris Lanceley JOHN MARCH
Nick Lawson SCOTTY
Judy Merrick CONNIE
David Nash VENUS
Cassandra Paras MATILDA
Sarah Roy JULIE
Anna Stromberg FAYE
Kelley Swindall JANE MARCH
Jordan Tisdale JULIO
Chris Wharton EDMOND
The Creative Team
Assistant Directors Sam Shane & Joanna Tomasz
Set Designer Alfred Schatz
Costume Designer Moria Clinton
Lighting Designer Natalie Robin
Sound Designer Phil Carluzzo
Props Designer Judy Merrick
Costume Assistant Christopher Metzger
Assistant Lighting Designer Jenna Lloyd
Fight Choreographer Lisa Kopitsky
Artwork Danica Novgorodoff
Graphic Designer Alexis Buatti-Ramos
The Production Team
Producer Kelcie Beene
Producer Form Theatricals (Anthony Francavilla & Zachary Laks)
Director of Production Sean Bauer
Director of Development & Events Caroline Hendrix
Director of Marketing Seena Hodges
Spiritual Advisor Larry Cobra
Spiritual Advisor Matthew Pilieci
Production Stage Manager Whitney Dearden
Assistant Stage Manager Nick Trotta
Assistant Stage Manager Christina Bracco
Master Electrician Amanda Clegg Lyon
Press Representative David Gibbs (DARR Publicity)
Assistants to the Producers Katie Kopajtic & Jenny Soo
Development & Communications Assistant Ryan Leach
Marketing Assistants Theresa Speziale & Caroline Cincaruk
Production Assistants Arshia Panicker, Alex Pepperman, Nicole Richards & Vassilea Terzaki

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