By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Is it okay for a serious detective drama to include a slo-mo dance break? Playwright Derek Ahonen raises that question with The Bad and the Better, the latest production from off-Off Broadway darlings The Amoralists.
With a cast of 26 and an epic story about anarchists, capitalists, and an exploding shopping mall, the play is a straightforward mystery worthy of Sam Spade.
But it's also a stylized comedy. Characters don't just get upset: They shout their frustration in ludicrously eloquent monologues. Anarchists don't just march outside a building: They have a "dance protest," grinding in slow motion so we can savor every shoulder shake and pelvic thrust.
For Ahonen, who's also a co-founder and associate artistic director of the Amoralists, this collision makes perfect sense. "I like taking stock characters and keeping all the comedic possibilities that could exist within them, but then writing them with genuine emotion," he says. "It would have been easy to do something like this with a lot of irony, to make it an 'ironic noir,' but I wanted it to be relevant to this current election and the occupy movement. I wanted to make it a serious, adult detective story with comedy."
Ahonen blends humor and feeling in most of his plays---including HotelMotel and Happy in the Poorhouse---and he's helped give the Amoralists their edgy, interesting identity. "That's also how I operate as a human being," he says. "I live in a world where most of the time, I'm either going to cry or laugh. I don't know what it's going to be---at the breaking point of insanity and poverty and humor. I live at a lot of breaking points, and that's where I write from."
Of course, with The Bad and the Better, which is running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd Street, Ahonen not only has to balance comedy and sentiment, but also has to make sure clues are delivered at the right time, villains aren't obvious from the beginning, and dozens of characters are clearly defined. While he usually writes a play in two months, this one took him six.
And even after all that writing, there were some things he didn't learn until rehearsals. For instance, the dance protest is immediately followed by a scene in a field, where a detective learns crucial information. Ahonen explains, "The audience has to go from sitting back and just appreciating the beauty of that dance from a production standpoint to leaning forward in their seats to get information about the detective story."
At first, the "field scene" was full of questions, with two civilians asking the detective if he knew who committed a crime. But after the energy of the dance sequence, all that wondering was a letdown. Ahonen rewrote the witnesses to know exactly who's committing crimes, and now, they try to convince the detective they're right. That moves the mystery along and complements the energy of the dance. "I realized the information needs to come on strong and hard and catch the audience's attention," Ahonen says.
Small details like that---who needs information and who's delivering it---can drastically change the temperature of a scene. They can decide whether a large, ambitious show actually works.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Matthew Murphy