Off season in Gotham signals the advent of play festivals and showcase productions like “The Bad Guys,” a play developed by Second Stage for its Uptown series. Alena Smith’s buddy drama — about a would-be filmmaker who betrays his boyhood friends by putting their shared secret into his first movie — is good material for workshop development. The narrative is murky, the characters are fuzzy, and the content is mainly exposition. The problem is, this imperfect play isn’t going into workshop; it’s just come out.
Helmer Hal Brooks and his design collaborators made some odd choices on the casting and presentation of Smith’s characters, so it’s a challenge just to identify them. And for reasons known only to the playwright, the people who matter most in the story never appear onstage.
A youngish guy named Noah (James McMenamin) would appear to be the hero of the piece. Noah’s first movie is being screened at a prestigious film festival on the West Coast, so he’s all packed and waiting for a friend to pick him up at his family home in upstate New York and drive him to the airport. This is going to be a “clean break” from home and all the pains of the past for Noah, who fully expects to stay in California and become famous once his film comes out.
Now, that’s a pretty good sketch of the classic hero taking the first step on a mythic journey quest. But for whatever reason, thesp, helmer and costume designer have determined that McMenamin should play Noah with the dirty face, greasy hair, wild eyes and creepy smile of some pervert who hangs around school playgrounds. (Those filthy jeans are enough to get him thrown off the plane.)
As it turns out, there’s nothing particularly heroic about his actions, either. Unknown to stepbrother Fink (Michael Braun) and mutual friends expected for a cookout, Noah’s movie exposes the “shitbag junkie murderer” they all knew and defended when he was charged with some undisclosed act of violence in the past.
Although the crime is never revealed and the presumed murderer’s innocence or guilt is never disclosed, this event from the past is the fulcrum of the drama, endlessly discussed but never resolved.
In the same way, characters who figured in that past event are frequently mentioned and argued over but never appear onstage. And some characters who do make an appearance in this overpopulated play have no more than minor (and largely functional) cause to be there.
One figure who does make an impact is Jesse (Tobias Segal), who was one of their high-school clique but dropped out to become the local dope dealer. Segal plays him realistically enough as the “ignorant podunk redneck” he appears to be, talking trash, swilling beer and pissing in the backyard — uncomfortably close to the barbecue steaks.
But this rude rustic persona makes no sense, because Jesse was once tight with these privileged man-children and presumably came from the same upper-middle-class background. Evidently he forgot his big vocabulary words and picked up a country twang when his family lost their money and had to move into a trailer.
Jesse’s character may be dodgy, but he does have the only provocative lines in the play, and Segal delivers them with passion in Jesse’s angry attack on evil investment bankers (like Fink) who made a killing in the real-estate meltdown after giving bad advice to small developers like his own father. It’s a fine speech, but what it has to do with Noah’s journey quest (remember Noah?) is anyone’s guess.