Let it not be said that director Daniel Aukin lacks range. Fresh from remounting 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s intimate, graceful chamber piece, he teams with the Amoralists for The Bad and the Better, a rampageous neo-noir with a dirty mouth and an imposing body count—eight deaths onstage, perhaps a dozen or more off.
On a playfully cluttered set that serves as a cop bar, a bookstore, a police department, a penthouse, a shopping mall, a Long Island suburb, and more, the harum-scarum swirl of the script eventually settles on two estranged siblings: Chucky Lang (David Nash), an NYPD recruit working undercover in an activists’ cell, and his older brother Ricky (William Apps), a disgraced detective exiled to a suburban backwater. A sinister real-estate deal, a fixed gubernatorial election, a rash of murder suicides, a long-aborning revenge, and various amours round out the plot of this two-and-half-hour show.
Playwright and Amoralists co-founder Derek Ahonen takes his title comes from a spat among the activists collective, in which the group’s leader, Edmond, tells a homicidal compatriot, “You don’t know the difference between the bad and the better.” Actually, the same might be said of Ahonen and, to a lesser extent, of Aukin. Despite an air of self-congratulation and a sophomoric taste for shock, Ahonen has real strengths as a playwright—fast, roguish dialogue and a predilection for plots with more twists than a Chubby Checker convention. But someone ought to help him differentiate the good jokes from the cheap ones, the necessary conversations from the filler.
Aukin’s a pro, teaming with lighting designer Natalie Robin to distinguish the unceasing parade of scenes. And he coaxes the 26-member cast toward a coherent tone amid the turpitude, a kind of cartoonish hyperrealism. Despite these efforts, the acting is pointedly uneven. Both Amoralists veterans (Sarah Lemp, Nick Lawson) and newcomers (Cassandra Paras) excel, but many others seem in search of a style, underplaying or overdoing it.
Of course, variability plagues any play so large and so long. For better or for badder, maybe the Amoralists even prefer it that way. Their very name, as well as the thematic arcs of most of their shows, questions what constitutes good and evil—a somewhat adolescent pursuit, but they seem to like it. Happily for audiences, they make that moral gray area look awfully colorful.