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The Bad Guys

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tobias Segal, James McMenamin, Michael Braun, and Roe Hartrampf.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Depending on your relationship with him or her, watching someone else's kid grow up can be either bittersweet or boring; and the less you care, the more likely it is to be the latter. That's why the main trouble with Alena Smith's play The Bad Guys, which Second Stage is presenting at McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of its Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, isn't whether the five young men it chronicles waken to the troubles they're creating for themselves before it's too late. It's whether you'll be able to stay awake to see if they do—or whether you'll even want to bother to make the attempt.

If nothing else, Smith has set up a sufficiently interesting scenario that could easily be the catalyst for compelling drama. Noah (James McMenamin) is a bad boy gone good, a genial guy in his early 30s who's escaped the poverty and the hopelessness of his early life by directing a film that has all of Hollywood abuzz. It's a hard-edged coming-of-age story about a group of adolescent friends, the murder they jointly experience, and the cover-up they perpetuate as a team. The only problem—so small it's hardly worth mentioning, really—is that Noah based it on events from his own life and hasn't told many of the key people involved that he's committed their shame to celluloid, let alone that it's quickly becoming the toast of the festival circuit.

Unfortunately, Smith doesn't bother to explore the nooks and crannies that might make this specific turmoil fascinating; instead, we get a lot of generic posturing from general-at-best people. The supposed murderer (though there's a bit of doubt about that), Ash, never appears, for example. The closest we get is the actor playing him, Paul (Raviv Ullman), about whom we know nothing except that he's gay and likes drugs. Speaking of which, we also meet Noah's friend-cum-dealer Jesse (Tobias Segal), whose defining trait is that he's both full-blown redneck and an all-out Occupier. We also meet the super-rich banker-with-the-soul-of-an-artist Fink (Michael Braun), Noah's step-brother (their moms are partners), and Whit (Roe Hartrampf), an old college roommate who apparently doesn't know how to let go of Noah but may be well versed in encroaching on his personal territory.

Given that the guys all congregate on Noah's final afternoon at his country home before he moves to Los Angeles, you might expect some good-natured camaraderie and fun, but that's not quite in the cards. Most of them don't like each other, which makes their interactions awkward at best and distasteful at worst. The most significant discussions that ensue are about wealth and class, which Fink and Ash have, to Jesse's unending consternation. There's a brief tip of the hat to the impossible dreams that fuel them all—whom does Noah most want to sleep with after making it big? Reese Witherspoon—but Smith is routinely less interested in these people than in the divisions of the society in which they live. That would be fine if the men were carefully drawn avatars of their various causes, and that detail was used to further our understanding of their struggles.

But that's not the case. Each of them merely represents some form of "badness" (Noah's tendency to lie, Whit's killing as a marine in Iraq, Fink's role in the global financial crisis, and so on) and is set upon the others so mechanically you can practically hear the gears turning. (The machinations Smith employs to get someone new out of the scene every five minutes to force a confrontation are impressively stilted, as is the increasingly elaborate—and, as far as I could tell, completely serious—nature of the world-shaking events Paul witnesses whenever he steps outside the property.) Also, in her desire to deconstruct the men's various virulent brands of machismo, she's left out characters that might pump real blood and conflict into the action: Ash, yes, but also Noah's ex-girlfriend Annie (who's become tied up with one of the others) and Jesse's all-seeing brother Chris, all three of whom play a greater role in the story—and seem far more interesting—than most of the one-dimensional constructs who made the dramatis personae cut.

Worse still, director Hal Roberts hasn't helped guide any of the actors to a convincing performance. The closest anyone comes is McMenamin, who's believable as an Everyman crossing a major threshold, although he played a variation on the theme to much more colorful and powerful effect in Suicide, Incorporated last season. Everyone else seems to be sleepwalking through their roles, hitting isolated single notes without ever generating melodies by themselves or harmonies together. (Segal goes the furthest, to anesthetizing effect, but the others don't lag far behind.) The overall effect is that of watching a TV show where the sound cuts out every five seconds: you get the gist of what's happening, but the details are obliterated. The same is true of Jason Simms's backyard set, which uses Astroturf unapologetically and, due to the sprawling empty area stage right, looks at most three-quarters completed.

That set is, however, an appropriate metaphor for the work as a whole, which barely feels like it's moved past the "first draft" stage. When plays or movies about shared tragedies and shared secrets work, it's usually because the writer cared even more about crafting characters than about their structural functions. (Stand By Me comes to mind as a classic, similarly themed example that works, and with scarcely more plot.) They can still achieve certain goals, but first and foremost they have to be people who exist for reasons beyond fulfilling the expectations of currently hot headlines. If the writer doesn't care enough to go the extra mile, why should we? Too often in The Bad Guys, it seems that Smith didn't. So, naturally, we don't either.

The Bad Guys
Through June 17
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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