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'Poor Behavior' - Country House Antagonism

Kate Kreisler and Brian Avers in Poor Behavior
(©James Leynse)

Theresa Rebeck wants to explore some pretty big ideas in her new play Poor Behavior, which Primary Stages opened last night at the Duke on 42nd Street. Among the concepts that are tucked inside this snapshot of two couples' dreadful weekend in the country are questions about what constitutes good and bad, as well as ones about morality. Daringly performed and capably directed by Evan Cabnet, the show should provoke both laughter and introspection. But, Rebeck's haphazard plotting and two-dimensional characters mean that theatergoers can never fully invest in the story or its broader implications.

Set in a comfortable and fashionably appointed country home just outside of New York (deliciously realized by scenic designer Lauren Helpern) that belongs to Ella (Kate Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), Poor Behavior starts with a late-night drunken argument between Ella and Ian. After the two have been somewhat calmed, Peter and Maureen retreat to their bedrooms, and Ella and Ian are left to share an intimate moment as Ian mourns his father's passing and the guilt he feels over having not returned to his native Ireland to say goodbye.

Maureen, prone to hysterics and, according to her husband, frequently suicidal, catches Ella consoling Ian. Glimpsing the tenderness that her husband and hostess share sends Maureen into a tailspin, and in short order, she confronts him about his fidelity and regales Peter with the news of her discovery of a seeming affair. It's small wonder that tempers flare all the way around over the next twenty-four hours as Ella attempts to assuage Peter's suspicions, and Ian derails in the face of a barrage of accusations and slurs from his wife.

Audiences might be able to empathize with their plight or seriously consider what Rebeck attempts to explore if the characters were anything more that abstractions of archetypes. But they're not. Ian's a fiery Irishman disillusioned by America and the dream that he believed it promised. Peter's a seeming milquetoast having conquered (seemingly) anger management issues. Ella's a tough-as-nails pragmatist. Maureen's a privileged neurotic.

Theatergoers have to assume they all work for a living, but Rebeck never reveals anything about what they might do when they're not shouting at one another. Worse still is the confused backstory that she creates for how they all know each other. We learn, repeatedly, that Maureen dated Peter's brother, which could explain the genesis of the friendship. But when one factors in Ian's description of how fond his late father was of Ella, it appears that they might have known one another socially before their respective marriages.

The lack of any concrete details that would make these characters or the situation even vaguely plausible only makes Rebeck's plot machinations particularly tougher to swallow. This is particularly true when a pair of earrings becomes the equivalent of the damning handkerchief in Othello.

All that's left for theatergoers are the savory, bravura performances. Each performer appears to be having a great time letting loose for two hours or so. Sadly, though, the ensemble's work is not enough this excursion into poor behavior a rich or satisfying experience.

---- Andy Propst

Poor Behavior plays at the Duke on 42nd Street (). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.