As someone who likes film noir, I'm always a bit wary when I see a play described with those two specific words. But as I sat in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater watching Derek Ahonen's The Bad and The Better, I couldn't help but be reminded of movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.
This is Theater Noir, if you will. We have a down on his luck detective, but he does not provide narration. Instead, this creative and complex new work manages to capture the edge of your seat excitement of that film genre and create a theatrical counterpart using theatrical conventions.
After you have seen a large amount of theater, you begin to believe that you can anticipate most of the "tricks" that will come your way. The twist ending can sometimes be spotted within the first twenty minutes of the first act, which is why it is so rare to have such a fantastically different piece of theater to sink your teeth into. Ahonen's complicated script is burgeoned by Daniel Aukin's fantastic direction to keep pleasantly surprising the audience member with a smart and sarcastic plot.
The cast is comprised of the members of The Amoralists, who proudly proclaim their mission to do "work of no moral judgment," as they explore the honest expression of human nature. That could not be more appropriate, as this play points out the hypocrite in all of us as it looks at groups from anarchists to the NYPD and several points in between.
At first glance the stereotypes of "anarchist" and "cop" (specifically "NYPD") might seem overdone, especially at a time when theater is reflecting Occupy culture more and more. However, this play is made interesting by the three-dimensionality of characters who defy expectation. This productive complication, which I am attempting to preserve with this unfortunately vague language, is furthered by the fact that several simultaneous plots have not just one, but many points of connection. This leads to an atmosphere of constant revelation, which is an exciting way of engaging the audience in the process of untangling the intricate, but sound, plot.
Another part of what makes The Bad and The Better so successful is the multitude of talented actors and their excellent use of the space. Like many a Shakespeare play, when the actors come out for curtain call it is shocking to realize how many people were actually on stage at one time or another. Here this is made all the better by the fact that there is not a weak link among them. Standouts include Sarah Lemp as Miss Hollis, Cassandra Paras as Matilda, William Apps as Lang, and Jordan Tisdale as Julio, but each and every one of these 26 actors work to bring this energetic play to life.
As previously mentioned, director Daniel Aukin does an excellent job of utilizing the space as well as getting solid performances out of his actors. Alfred Schatz's set design is a fantastic space, but it is Aukin's creative use of this stable setting that makes it work so well. The interior of a bar, a bookstore, and a detective's office share the stage, flowing into each other, and delineated by their use as well as by Natalie Robin's lighting design. Sound designer Phil Carluzzo participates in the ambience with strategically placed gunshots as mechanisms of scene changes. All of these elements work with the actors to keep the suspense up as the play surges forward.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing The Bad and The Better, and it left me feeling very happy that there are still aspects of the "detective play" that have not yet been fully tapped. This piece is creative, smart, funny, and gritty simultaneously and it is one that I will be thinking about for a long time.