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Poor Behavior

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Katie Kreisler and Brian Avers
Photo by James Leynse

If one were exceedingly generous, one could consider the play Poor Behavior a psychological romantic mystery. It has, in theory, all the makings of an entry in such a genre: vicious arguments, twisty-turny confusions, mind games aplenty, and a torrid tryst or two. But as Evan Cabnet's new production of it for Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street reveals, Theresa Rebeck's latest offering in New York has issues well in excess of what a year with the local therapist, or even a brooding roll in the hay, could be expected to remedy.

Things do, however, start out promising. In what looks like a late-night party at a trendy country home (the lovely, laid-back set design is by Lauren Helpern), two people are engaging in a spirited—perhaps too-spirited—alcohol-fueled discussion. It's about a question of goodness, and whether a moral perspective of any sort can exist within the boundaries of the human condition. Ian (Brian Avers), dark, vaguely unkempt, Irish, says it can't; Ella (Katie Kreisler), a together, sophisticated American woman, insists it can. The pair's respective spouses, dizzy Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) and level-headed Peter (Jeff Biehl), aren't sure what to make of any of it.

Nor, for that matter, are we, though such explorations of contemporary ambiguities are par for the course for Rebeck, who's shown in recent stage works that she's willing to focus that particular lens on topics as diverse as money (Dead Accounts), literature (Seminar), and the theatre (The Understudy). (It didn't emerge to quite the same degree in the first season of Rebeck's TV series, Smash.) So it's not a surprise that Ian and Ella are bickering about the fine line between ethics and morality, touching on instances as diverse as the Yosemite Valley and American Exceptionalism, or that it bleeds into their "winding-down" interactions. The two are friends, after all.

But when Maureen sees them holding each other strangely closely after the party has ended, she clearly reaches a different conclusion. To us, it looks perfectly innocent (Ian is upset about his father's recently death, but he couldn't be there because he needed to tend to his wife), but Maureen blows the whole thing out of proportion, and suddenly the group's entire weekend is going up in all but literal flames. Ella denies an affair flatly, of course, and Ian doesn't quite—from the beginning, he sounds like he's intentionally sowing confusion in others' minds—but we never see a specific moment of inception for what looks like it's on track to become a critical turning point in all four people's lives.

This is, to put it kindly, problematic. If Rebeck has a traditional knack for lining up the uncertainties, she's just as gifted at striking out while trying to knock them down. Poor Behavior's entire plot hinges on a misunderstanding that has no reason to exist, and that we're given no reason to doubt. True, there are forces at work whose impact isn't felt until the final scene, but because the play feels as though it's spinning its wheels until that revolution occurs (which is yet another problem), it's difficult to endure the ride until you get to your final, apparently random destination.

Worse, when the logic (such as it is) is finally laid out, understanding it requires information Rebeck doesn't bother giving you in the highly protracted lead-up. The flash point for the various entanglements is a 15-minute span of time a year before the play began, something that's never referenced or hinted at until an arbitrary point, and that doesn't detectably influence anyone until then. Nor is it much consolation that one character's reaction is justified as, generally, "I knew all along," when there's not a stitch of evidence on hand that that claim is in any way true.

Rebeck's fooling around with knowingness, and pondering whether ironclad trust can exist in any relationship, is not a bad idea, but motivations that materialize from nowhere long after they should have been established, and personalities that shift 180 degrees merely because the playwright needs them somewhere else, suggest a playwright who's not genuinely interested in showing us the journey these people are making. As a result, when all the secrets finally come out, we've been allowed to invest so little in them that there's not much to do other than yawn.

Cabnet keeps the action as taut as he can, but that's not easy in a play with no identifiable foundation. As for the actors, only Kreisler completely scores. Because Ella undergoes the biggest changes, and is the fulcrum for most of the conflict that occurs, Kreisler has the opportunity to show us how a contented woman can lose the grip that she prizes so highly and slowly raise long-buried pain to the surface. Kreisler's work is subtle and interesting, qualities you don't find elsewhere here. Avers makes the one-level Ian excitingly irritating at first, but is ultimately defeated by the character's essential hollowness. Biehl only partially develops Peter's milquetoast tendencies, so he never evolves beyond his basic "innocent victim" status. And though Armbruster is deeply game and frequently amusing in her role, she can't organize Maureen into the coherent antagonist Rebeck so desperately wants her to be.

We keep hearing how Maureen is insane—one picture Rebeck, her thesaurus open to that word, gleefully typing each of the countless new synonyms she deploys—but what we see instead is a well-meaning woman who doesn't trust a man we don't trust, either. What's crazy about that? You eventually find out, sort of, but by the time that reversal comes about it's one among dozens that's been dropped in to make a catatonic play appear to spring to life without real animating electricity. If indeed Poor Behavior is a psychological romantic mystery, it's one that's neither psychological nor romantic, and is mysterious for all the wrong reasons.

Poor Behavior
Through September 7
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
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