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A CurtainUp Review
Poor Behavior

For Me, what makes the play so immediate and of the moment is the search for a moral compass, for some common ground on which to agree on how to behave. — Evan Cabnet, the play's director
Poor Behavi0r
Photo: Katie Kreisler and Brian Avers (Photo: James Leynse)
In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, playwright Theresa Rebeck said that her play Poor Behavior was inspired by a "really disastrous week" that she and her husband spent with friends at their country home. She certainly isn't the first or will she be the last playwright to use autobiographical memory to expand into a fictional plot. Like the havoc-filled weekend that Noel Coward acknowledged as his inspiration for Hay Fever, Rebeck has taken the potential for increasing unpleasantness and the possibility of disaster among two couples/long-time friends to its limits in her verbose but witty and darkly funny Poor Behavior.

The play's avalanche of words extends well beyond the opening's protracted philosophical argument about "goodness" that quickly tests our investment in two of the play's four characters. If it's hard not to feel that Rebeck's characters are suspiciously close to being metaphorical ciphers, we can credit her for making sure that their actions and their anxieties are as engaging as they are designated to be unsettling.

The setting is a high-end kitchen and dining area (spectacularly designed by Lauren Helpern) of resident New Yorkers Ella (Katie Kreisler) and Peter's (Jeff Biehl) upstate country home. They are hosting long-time friends Ian (Brian Avers) and his wife Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) for the weekend. It is after dinner and the many bottles of wine consumed continue to bring out the worst in everyone. Although an argument between Ian and Ella is in full throttle as the play begins, Maureen and Peter have also joined the shouting free-for-all.

Ian is a charmingly condescending Irish expatriate. Ella is attractive, defensive but just as feisty, a woman who likes to get in the last word. They duke it out as they make ethical and moral points about what constitutes "goodness" to define Americans as opposed to its meaning by "others." It is amusing to see the flabbergasted and nonplussed Maureen and Peter subjected to the sidelines. We can also see how they not only feel disconnected in spirit from their spouses, but also displaced by the intensity that commits Ian and Ella to their battle of words and meanings.

There's a stirring of sexual attraction between Ian and Ella but they are exceedingly cautious to either reveal their feelings, or to even contemplat3 any unacceptable behavior under these conditions. Shades of Who's Afraid... , Ian has his hands full with the very pretty, very suspicious and also very neurotic Maureen, and Ella seems to have settled into a complacent decade of marriage to the dull and devoted Peter.

Seeing themselves as outsiders, Maureen and Peter say goodnight leaving Ian and Ella still at loggerheads. The sh--t hits the fan when Maureen comes downstairs in the middle of the night and misinterprets what she sees, goes bonkers. She involves Peter who, in turn, becomes dangerous which sets into motion a resolve calculated to leave us stunned.

Although Rebeck tells us very little about these characters — what they do or their back-stories— their relationship before this weekend gets some attention . The programmed for disaster weekend is littered with some funny stuff. A particularly amusing scene finds Ella in a state of frustration for want of breakfast destroying an entire box of muffins brought by Maureen as she desperately looks for one that she considers edible.

Ella's restlessness and the war being waged within herself is precisely revealed in Kreisler's edgy performance. Brian Avers is excellent as the cocky, self-assured Ian and Jeff Biehl gets our empathy as the benign Peter — that is until he gets his day of wrath. Most fun of all is watching Armbruster's emotionally unstable Maureen see-saw between hysteria and hubris. Director Evan Cabnet craftily monitors all of their bad behavior.

The playwright intention as cited in the promotional literature is "to explore a world in which the rules of behavior have become too confusing for anyone to make head or tails of them." It's a provocative and worth contemplating theme, hopefully not one to incite a too heated argument with your companion on the way home.

It is wonderful that Primary Stages is producing the fifteenth play to be presented in New York by the prolific Rebeck. Although she received a lot of notoriety as the creator of the NBC drama Smash , she has also enjoyed considerable success and renown for her plays that include Seminar , Mauritius and The Understudy. Poor Behavior has undergone considerable revisions since it premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, with changes in the characters but without drastic changes to the original concept For Curtainup's review of the original production in 2011, go here.

Poor Behavior By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Evan Cabnet

Cast: Brian Avers (Ian), Katie Kreisler (Ella), Heidi Armbruster (Maureen), Jeff Biehl (Peter)
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff
Props & Set Dressing: Fay Armon-Troncoso
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: Samantha Greene
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street
(212) 279 - 4200
Tickets: $70.00
Performances: Tuesday - Thurs 7 pm; Fri. 8 pm; Sat 2 & 8 pm; Sun 3 pm
From 07/29/14 Opened 08/17/14 Ends 09/07/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/13/14
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