Here’s a familiar scene: One couple has invited another, close friends, for a weekend in the country. As significant amounts of alcohol flow from bottle to glass to lips, conversation turns from spirited to merely loud to acridly inchoate. The most engaged combatants — she of the inviter couple, he of the invitees — continue going at it with verbal hammer and tong until their bored spouses rather too conveniently depart. Before you can say Woodstock, the disputational duo is discovered in a clinch. So much for a weekend of peace, love and music.
That’s how Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior (which was seen three years ago at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum) begins. Like that title, the play itself is hellbent on provocation, a specialty of this writer, whose jaundiced view of humankind has sparked good plays (The Scene, Loose Knit) and bad (Seminar and Mauritius, both produced on Broadway and both pretty awful).
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At her best, Rebeck takes conventional situations — a trendy party, a writers’ group — and spikes the mix with moral complexity. Indeed, the idea of moral complexity fuels Poor Behavior: Evan Cabnet’s overwrought production at off-Broadway’s Primary Stages opens with Ian (Brin Avers) hollering at Ella (Katie Kreisler) about the impossibility of the existence of “good.” The universe is indifferent, and to believe otherwise is to show oneself to be a fool.
Being Irish automatically confers upon Ian loquacity, ferocity, wit and, of course, unquenchable thirst for confrontation and booze. Ella is doesn’t really stand a chance against such a force of nature. Her husband Peter (Jeff Biehl), mild and competent, and Ian’s wife Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), wound taut and given to melodrama, quickly become irrelevant as well, except in helping Ian drive home his point:
“Human beings are neither good nor evil,” he says to Ella, in a tone meant to make his cult of Euro-style existentialism irresistible. “Your fantasy that remaining faithful to a broken marriage makes you a good person, frankly, is beneath you.” To which he later adds, “Why do Americans persist in thinking that it is moral and good to remain addicted to an institution which has driven them mad? You all think the most insane and dangerous leaders imaginable are decent as long as they’re in a supposedly sound marriage. The holiness of marriage is your security blanket…” Et cetera, et cetera.
A script that cries out for restraint has instead been amped up in both decibel level and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, all but drowning characters who could have used a bit more definition. Only Kreisler succeeds in adjusting the stops to let us hear a bit of how Ella’s mind works. And neither Cabnet nor his quartet can salvage a disappointing ending that’s neither here nor there in addressing the issues Rebeck raises.
But I was never bored by the thrust and parry of these combatants, nor less than amused by Rebeck’s unbridled contempt for artisanal muffins, the latest trendy wine region — and the annoying weekenders for whom intimate knowledge of such things is the ultimate moral imperative.
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