There are almost 30 speaking roles in The Bad and the Better, Derek Ahonen’s new play for The Amoralists theater troupe, and most of the actors playing major characters are required to switch on a dime between personas; practically every person in this play is going undercover, putting on an act, or operating out of hidden motives. Director Daniel Aukin deserves major kudos for keeping such a firm handle on a lot of people and a lot of stage traffic, and Ahonen himself deserves a lot of credit for creating such a big play with carefully worked-out plots and subplots.
Most New York theatergoers are used to the majority of our plays being staged on a single set, generally a living room of some sort, between two to four people at most, usually either couples or some kind of family. The Amoralists is a company that does everything it can to work against these strictures of the American commercial theater, and The Bad and the Better (through July 21) is often at its funniest when it takes sharp aim at the theater itself and varying perceptions of it. But this is also a play about mother issues, political corruption and role playing, and these issues are given time and space to be fleshed out as much as possible without ever losing their dramatic shape.
This is an enormous step forward in control from previous Amoralists productions like the untidy Amerissiah, where all the actors shouted too much. There’s some shouting in The Bad and the Better, but always in the service of some idea, always for a reason. The acting is splendid, and remarkably consistent. It’s tough to single out any one player because everyone is working at much the same level for the same goal, as in any first-rate theater company, but Sarah Lemp deserves special mention for taking a problematic character, the lovelorn secretary Miss Hollis, and imbuing her with a distinctively neurotic physicality and emotional temperature. There’s enough fine writing and acting here for several mid-sized plays, any one of which would make for a solid theatrical endeavor.
If there’s any fault to be found in The Bad and the Better, it lies in Ahonen’s overly fond use of macho guy talk, which seems at times to be in the play just for the pleasure of it. In general, Ahonen’s work would benefit from a closer and more empathetic fleshing out of his female characters and a little less attention to his men. Taken simply as a theatrical feat, though, The Bad and the Better is an enormous achievement of steady control and focus on a large scale; it never gets out of hand and it never wanders off-track. For those tired of small plays about small people for big prices, a production like The Bad and the Better is a decisive move in the right direction.