Katie Kreisler and Brian Avers
in a scene from Poor Behavior
(Photo credit: James Leynse)
Theresa Rebeck (who may just be both our most prolific and produced playwright) writes plays that concern confrontations of various kinds. In Poor Behavior which opens Primary Stages’ 30th season in its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street, she has appropriated the genre of the two-couple play or the four-hander. Other examples produced in New York this year include Will Eno’s The Realistic
Jones, Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends, and, yet to come later this fall, a revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart. The granddaddy of these is, of course, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Rebeck’s play starts off with a bang. When the curtain goes up guest Ian, an Irishman of some charm who is virulently anti-American, is arguing with his New York hostess Ella in her upstate country house while Maureen, Ian’s neurotic American wife, and Peter, Ella’s phlegmatic husband, look on in horror. The topic, whether “goodness” can exist in our world, quickly evolves into a debate as to whether there is such a thing as “morality.” All of them have had too much to drink and while Ian and Ella have often had vigorous disputes in the past, this encounter leaves a sour mood to the evening. Peter and Maureen, both exhausted from listening to this argument which has spiraled out of control, go to bed. Once they are alone, Ian reveals to Ella that his father has died and that he feels guilty about not having visited him in the hospital or attended the funeral, though he felt he could not leave Maureen on her own. Ian cries on Ella’s shoulder which is observed by Maureen who has come back into the kitchen at just this moment.
From this incident, Maureen, who is extremely unstable and paranoid, decided that her husband who plays fast and loose with reality has been having an affair with Ella. This announcement precipitates the chain of events that make up the play. While Ella and Peter have had a good marriage up to this moment (though they may have fallen into the rut of placidity and compromise), Ian and Maureen’s marriage has been hanging on by a thread for a long time due to Maureen’s fragility and Ian’s dogmatic personality. The first act, the evening of the fight and early the following morning, is mainly made up of ranting. In the second act when the foursome returns from brunch in town, the real fireworks begin. The play is exhausting for both the actors and the audience, both because the tension is so unrelieved and that the arguments continue to circle around the same few points without moving on to new territory. The relatively few seconds of silence come as a welcome relief from the pitch of the quarrels which become ever more disparaging.
Heidi Armbruster and Brian Avers
in a scene from Poor Behavior
(Photo credit: James Leynse)
Although director Evan Cabnet keeps the pace moving at all times, the tempo doesn’t keep us from noticing that while we learn about these four friends’ past together, we know little about them. What do they do for a living? Do they live near each other in the city? Do they meet often? It is obvious that Peter and Ella are very soon sorry that they invited these particular guests – they only ask them to leave about three times. The play might be easier to sit through if the fight scenes were played with more irony and less rancor, if the temperature were at times brought down a degree before rising even higher. Ultimately, none of these people are good company and all have behaved poorly. The ending is shattering but the final consequences haven’t really been earned or deserved. Much of the last act seems like the author has stage managed her creations. At the end, we know we have been through a dark night – but to what purpose?
The actors are excellent at what they are asked to do. They can’t be faulted for the fact that their characters are all extremely unpleasant. At the center is Brian Avers’ manipulative and egotistical Ian, a man who not only likes to hear himself talk, but he also likes to obtain what he wants. As his wife Maureen, Heidi Armbruster gives a fine portrayal of a paranoid schizophrenic, a woman who convinces herself of things and then proceeds to act on their validity. Katie Kreisler as their hostess Ella has the most difficult role as she witnesses her life unraveling about her based on Maureen’s accusations. As Kreisler plays most of the evening at the same intensity she has nowhere to go quite quickly. She commands our attention but we might be more involved with her situation if she had expressed more irony rather than let Ian continually get to her. As her placid husband Peter, Jeff Biehl has the role that has been the least developed, though he does lose his temper quite effectively late in the second act.
Lauren Helpern’s enviable kitchen/dining room/front hall setting with its contemporary fittings and visible wood beams is most attractive while Jessica Pabst’s costumes are pitch-perfect for these modern characters. The realistic lighting by Jason Lyons mirrors the passage of time. The sound design by Jill BC Du Boff presents classical music before each scene, appropriately progressing from a piano sonata to a full orchestra.
Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior offers actors juicy parts which are played to the hilt in Evan Cabnet’s production for Primary Stages’ New York premiere. However, ultimately this is an unpleasant weekend in the country filled with disagreeable and obnoxious people. By the end of this wearisome evening, all we really learn is not to spend time with toxic friends – not a deep enough message for the preceding tumult.
Poor Behavior (through September 7, 2014)
Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.primarystages.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission