In The Bad and the Better, surprise is a highly unstable element. Derek Ahonen’s outlandishly twisty thriller is the latest joint—an elbow, delivered straight to the ribs—from the Amoralists, a troupe that has broken out in the past three years on the strength of its idiosyncratic voice (often deployed at full volume). The company’s quasicultish vibe is typified by The Bad and the Better’s program, in which the biographies of the cast and crew are delineated exclusively in terms of past Amoralist projects. Staged in the upper theater of the Playwrights Horizons complex, this latest undertaking represents a departure from the group’s divey downtown discomfort zones, but the Amoralists have not gone soft. Directed with acupunctural precision by Daniel Aukin (4000 Miles), Ahonen’s whacked-out moral epic exults nonetheless in cherry-bomb messiness.
“Nobody wants to see death onstage anymore,” says a mopey playwright named Venus (David Nash), who is actually an undercover cop working to infiltrate a fledgling anarchist group. “Unless of course it’s like some coming-of-age tale in which siblings deal with the death of a parent to pancreatic cancer.” Ahonen has more radical plans: The Bad and the Better is a seamy quilt of police brutality, political corruption and family tragedy, and its second act plays by sudden-death rules. Working in the hard-nosed neonoir mode of films like The Departed, the play also takes merry trips into wild-eyed satire and contrivance. The cast of 26 (!) includes Amoralist vets Nick Lawson, James Kautz, William Apps and Selene Beretta, performing in various degrees of naturalism; at the edges of this spectrum, Sarah Lemp draws a juicy caricature of secretarial lust, while Anna Stromberg and Cassandra Paras, as two women who fall under Venus’s spell, are movingly real. The actors are continually in your face and each other’s: Physical attacks flip to passionate kisses on no less than three occasions. Whether you love it or hate it or both, The Bad and the Better leaves you agape at its killer-diller audacity.—Adam Feldman
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