It is proverbial to say the city is naked and filled with eight million stories. The Bad and the Better, playing at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd street, is detective noir set in contemporary New York City that tries in scope and imagination to reach that magic number. Twenty-six (count ‘em) actors from the downtown theater troupe The Amoralists tell a story of corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, corrupt revolutionary anarchists, and more than one moll with a heart of gold, making you feel as though eight million isn’t actually all that many storylines.
No basic summary of the plot could ever do justice to the intricacies, double identities, cons, and twists in this story. So I won’t even try. Despite being accused of writing “Chinatown on Ritalin” Playwright Derek Ahonen has an ear for both the cadences of noir and contemporary absurdities of American English. What’s more, Ahonen uses genre as FM radio: a carrier wave for recent events populated with characters that you will recognize in contemporary New York — Occupy Wall Street activists, the Hipster Cop, militant gays, Mexican outlaws, dive bar tenders, Long Island true housewives, and trust fund radicals.
Mr. Ahonen’s contribution to noir is to update some of the stock characters with a wink and a nod to New York locals, or anyone who reads the Post and/or Daily News regularly. By way of these novelties he sneaks in some more interesting, 21st century observations on the human condition. For example, revolution and revolutionaries in The Bad and the Better are incurable Romantics (capital “R”). Like Byron dying young for Greek independence, the revolutionaries in The Bad and the Better want to die fabulously and leave a beautiful corpse. In an early strategy meeting the revolutionary anarchists debate what corrupts — money, fame? — until one of them says “love,” and that pretty much sums up the nexus of desire, guns, and power in the play’s climax: the curse of equality is powersharing, and for anarchists power is antithetical to equality.
In the last analysis, however, this is a family drama. The basic motivation of every character is Oedipal, which means the older you are, the more corrupt you are. Even the corrupt gubernatorial candidate says at the beginning of the play that he is as clean as an unborn fetus. Is it coincidence that so many women in the play die while pregnant? The parents corrupt the children, and the children are so corrupt, so full of the love of death you get the feeling that threescore year will make the world away.
Though this may not be the most innovative play in recent memory, it does an excellent job of entertaining. The jokes are funny, and the action is suspenseful. The set design (including lights and sounds) is right on, and the cast strikes just the right balance between amateur idealism and professional exactitude. All in all, well worth the time and money.
Through July 21 at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42 Street