“Poor Behavior,” Theresa Rebeck’s comedy at Primary Stages, revolves around a basic question: “What is goodness?” The play begins in the middle of a debate on the subject by two characters who have drunkenly escalated their argument into insults, while their respective spouses sit in near silence. By the end of the play more than two hours later, we are meant to have explored the question dramatically by witnessing the behavior of the four characters over a long weekend in the country.
There is a superficial resemblance here both to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and Yasmin Reza’s “God of Carnage,” both involving two couples, and both suggesting how thin the membrane of civilization. In “God of Carnage” two sophisticated couples, meeting to bring to resolution the squabble between their two warring sons, instead escalate the conflict in well-calibrated savage and hilarious ways.
The difference in “Poor Behavior” is that the couples have known each other for a long time, and the unfolding of their behavior is more convoluted and complicated – and less satisfying.
Peter and Ella have invited Ian and Maureen up to their country house for the weekend. The hosts don’t really want the guests there, and the guests don’t really want to be there. But they are all old friends – old, but we eventually learn, not very good friends.
Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), who grew up together, come to suspect that their argumentative spouses, Ella (Katie Kreisler) and Ian (Brian Avers), have been having an affair. On the other hand, Ian accuses Peter of always having thought that Maureen was a nutcase, and a decade earlier, warning Ian not to marry her – a vivid recollection for Ian, but a conversation that Peter says he doesn’t remember having and doubts occurred. And that is the way of this play – accusations, denials, memory lapses. There are also many apologies, almost all of them insincere. This interaction is initially intriguing, our view changing of each character with each new revelation, helped along by the first-rate acting. But the twists start to feel fussy and tiresome – as if we in the audience are as much stuck in the company of these petty, bickering couples as they are.
There are some compensations, though, including some of the questions explicitly raised for us to ponder and dissect – for example: If you feel you’ve made a personal choice that’s a mistake, is it good or bad to try to correct it? “Why do Americans persist in thinking that it is “moral” and “good” to remain addicted to an institution which has driven them mad?” Ian (who is Irish-born) asks at one point, talking about the institution of marriage. But is Ian’s rhetorical question a moral stance, or an excuse to be immoral – i.e. hurtful?
There is also a funny comic conceit threaded throughout the play about one of my pet beefs – the sad decline of muffins. However poor the behavior of her characters, Theresa Rebeck knows how to make me laugh.
Rebeck is probably best-known for creating the TV show “Smash,” but it is worth noting that over the past 22 years, she has had 15 of her plays produced on New York’s Broadway and Off-Broadway stages– more, she says, than any other female playwright in history, including Lillian Hellman and Tina Howe (who come in second place.)
“Poor Behavior” is scheduled to run through September 7 at Primary Stages at the Duke (42nd Street)