William Apps and Sarah Lemp
in The Bad and the Better
(© Monica Simoes)
William Apps and Sarah Lemp
in The Bad and the Better
(© Monica Simoes)
It's tempting to say the title of Derek Ahonen's new play, The Bad and the Better, now being presented by the Amoralists at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, refers to the varying quality of the show. Clunky dialogue abounds throughout this 150-minute production, but if you push past it a sprawling and somewhat compelling story emerges.

The central villain, real estate tycoon Richard Zorn (Clyde Baldo), is forcing people out of their houses to make room for his new mall and condo complex as the play opens. He has a mayoral candidate (Eugene Moretti) in his pocket -- a man who uses hawkish rhetoric to distract from his diminished intelligence and feels the world is for his taking.

Those who remember the battle over the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn will see developer Bruce Ratner in Zorn, but this guy makes Ratner look like a golden retriever. He's a one-dimensional "Dr. Evil" kind of character who laughs manically as he plots world destruction.

On the other side is an anarchist group led by two young revolutionary wannabes, Justice (James Kautz) and Charity (Selene Beretta), who wear brightly colored matching outfits and run meetings out of a radical bookstore that could have been airlifted out of San Francisco in the 1960s. Their protests start peaceful -- often involving a lot of interpretive dance -- but grow more militant as they're met with resistance (and pepper spray).

An undercover officer, Chuck (David Nash), poses as a playwright, Venus, to infiltrate the protest group. In an early scene, bookstore clerk and aspiring revolutionary Faye (Anna Stromberg) berates him for writing "a pathetic play about anarchists" entitled The Sad Singers on Stanton Street (a reference to Ahonen's own The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side). On yet another side, Chuck's brother, detective Rick Lang (relegated to a sleepy post in Long Island after a questionable shooting), begins to dig into a string of sudden deaths that reek of foul play.

By the end, all of these storylines are tied back to Zorn with varying levels of satisfaction and maximum carnage in a larger-than-life story that offers some thrills but plenty of eye rolling as well. The play is set in the present but the neo-noir language and scenic and costume design -- which evokes the 1940s and 1960s respectively -- causes a tonal confusion.

At its best, Ahonen's dialogue exudes an urgent roughness, which leads to some inspired comedic moments. Moreover, there is a momentum that gathers when the space between what's felt and said closes, and director Daniel Aukin mines this for all it's worth -- especially in the last half hour. But ultimately, the lack of subtext in the show creates a void its charms simply can't quite fill.