‘The Bad and the Better’: an orgy for theater lovers

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With their new show “The Bad and the Better,” The Amoralists have moved a bit closer to New York City’s mainstream — from the Lower East Side to 42nd Street — but they haven’t given an inch in terms of challenging, confrontational theater.

The Amoralists’ resident playwright Derek Ahonen is peerless when it comes to getting ideas that are percolating in the culture on stage while they still matter. Play by play, he is creating a body of work that has captured the madness and the hilarity of living in America at the turn of the Millennium.

Ahonen is part journalist, part philosopher and part saloon poet — he somehow manages to write plays that are both true to life and larger than life. How Ahonen can bring together so many jagged pieces and then make them fit together seamlessly is a mystery that I hope he never solves.

The playwright is also a connoisseur of pop culture who knows how to borrow and reshape ideas and material from other artists who have mattered to him — the rawness of John Cassavetes, the wild mix of comedy and tragedy in the best movies of Brian DePalma, and the everything-happening-at-once film tapestries created by Robert Altman.

“The Bad and the Better” has complex political corruption plot threads running through it that are pure film noir, but the stage also regularly erupts in raucous sex comedy, and send-ups of modern theater (including scenes that poke fun at Ahonen himself).

The Peter Jay Sharp Theater in the Playwrights Horizons complex is a snug venue, but set designer Alfred Schatz has created a wide, layered environment that makes the play look as big as the places and the ideas that are knocking around in it.

Director Daniel Aukin keeps things flowing like a movie and despite a cast of 26 and more locations than you could count, you will never feel lost in Ahonen’s scary and funny world.

The Amoralists’ smashing resident company of actors has been augmented by more than a dozen newcomers who fit right in, but special mention must be made of company star Sarah Lemp (below, right) as Miss Hollis, the secretary whose failed attempts to keep her mind on her work power the play’s wildest moments.

Lemp has pulled off many of the most difficult scenes that Ahonen has written in previous Amoralist productions such as “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” and “Happy in the Poorhouse” but the actress has an aggressive sex scene here that might be the funniest thing of its type since Julie Christie’s Election Night maneuver in “Shampoo.”

(“The Bad and the Better” is set to run through July 21. For tickets go to www.theamoralists.com)

Joe Meyers

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