‘Poor Behavior’ makes for great theatre

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How it’s New York: Primary Stages is one of New York’s main homes of great new plays, and the people in the play are New Yorkers.
KATIE KREISLER and BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

KATIE KREISLER and BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

How it’s Irish: The main instigator of the “poor behavior” of the title is from Donegal.

Theresa Rebeck hit the “big time” with “Smash.” Frankly, the show sucked, but it’s not her fault. She’s a terrific playwright of often bad manners, and “Poor Behavior” at Primary Stages through Sept. 7 fits right in with that genre.

On the surface it appears to be another adultery play. A couple has another couple

up for the weekend to their country home, and things go from touchy to dangerous. But there’s more at stake than fidelity. Underneath the surface actions of lust, connection, appreciation, the play delves deeply into the questions at the heart of the heated argument that opens the play: What is goodness? Is there such a thing? What about redemption?

They are questions worth exploring, in a play worth seeing.

Ian (Brian Avers) sneers at the opinions of Ella (Katie Kreisler) that good exists and is worthwhile. The argument grows

Is it just using anesthesia dulling the pain of a flat life to accept mere contentment?

 

heated. Their respective spouses Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) and Peter (Jeff Biehl) try to defuse the situation, then give up and go to bed. Ian and Ella continue the argumen

HEIDI ARMBRUSTER in POOR BEHAVIOR

HEIDI ARMBRUSTER in POOR BEHAVIOR

t and when Ian reveals that part of what’s prompting his anger is the recent death of his father, and his failure to visit him in the hospital or even go to the funeral, Ella gives him a hug.

That’s when Maureen comes in and sees them. Maureen is dangerously unhinged and always has been, we’ll learn.

She jumps to the worst possible conclusion, and sows the seed of doubt for Ella’s husband Peter. The rest of the play takes off from this inciting action,  with jokes along the way about inedible muffins (ginger blueberry tomato confit),  hangover cures  and water pressure in the condo in the city. It’s all very middle class. But don’t be deceived: the questions are universal.

Rebeck is very skilled with oblique dialogue. Take this early exchange between Ella and her

husband:

“Don’t drink too much.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

Says so much.

Even the dabs at exploring the Irish character through this one Irish character are interesting, if slight. Ian’s use of cynicism to

THERESA REBECK

THERESA REBECK

cover his romantic soul is familiarly Irish. Ella counters Ian’s early scorn by saying

“The Irish haven’t done anything but get dronk and write poems for the last thousand years.”

Ian replies that he might concede that point, though the poems are good, “we maybe should get some credit for that.” Classic.

When Ian tells Ella that his father described her as “a girl beyond time” (which does, in fact, sound poetic and Irish) Ella’s response,

“Honestly, Ian, I can’t tell if this is a solution or a lecture”

is both witty and apt.

Avers’ best moment (and where his accent sounds best) is in a late monologue where he talks to his wife, trying to get her to understand his disappointment in her:

Because the real indignity, finally, is that crashingly horrifying discovery that your soul was wrong. Was in fact just stupid, your soul, and how do you live with that, how do you live with the utter insult of cataclysmic personal mistakes? Well we do. We just make do, god help us; we content ourselves with the memory of a hope that it is possible, perhaps to occasionally, at random, encounter a shred of subjectivity that somehow lives in relation to your shred, there’s something else out there that for a moment might recognize–you. The thing that is just you, in your essence. Might be seen. By another shred.

HEIDI ARMBRUSTER and BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

HEIDI ARMBRUSTER and BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

He says it all without looking at her, a choice that demonstrates the grief he feels.

 

Kudos are due to director Evan Cabnet, who keeps the actors moving in what could easily become static, and manages to bring out the deeper themes without ever allowing the play to become heavy-handed.

Yes, it is one of those plays where a lot could be resolved if one person, just one, would say the obvious– we weren’t having an affair, I was hugging him out of sympathy– but everyone’s too flustered to think straight. This is also one of those plays where geography bears little resistance to the real world (at least once, someone goes to Manhattan and back ridiculously quickly), and it’s also a bit of an issue for me that although it’s a comedy of manners, we never learn what anybody does. It’s not a BIG thing– but a line late in the play about taking the day off of work made me wonder what everyone does, that they have all this money.

Much of the acting is first rate, particularly Kreisler, who conveys so much with just a look. Her husky voice goes straight to the heart. Armbruster’s Maureen is the worst kind of crazy– victim and resentful at once. So determined is she to be right that she says things like “There is no diner!” when everyone is trying to remember the the name of the place they ate at last time.

Unfortunately, she’s so good at this portrayal that we, like the characters, just can’t wait for her to leave the stage. She has a lot of stage time, so that’s a problem. More of a problem is Avers’ struggling accent. It’s Donegal some of the time, American most of the time (Stephen Gabis was the dialect coach; he’s done well in other productions, but Donegal is hard). Biehl does well by Peter, who seems a peacemaker, gentle person at first but who rather contrivedly has a fierce temper that we hear about it a small monologue as a way to foreshadow a fight later on.

The fight choreography by Thomas Schall is outstanding; I held my breath. Also outstanding is the beautiful unit set of the country home by Lauren Halpern and the props and set dressing by Faye Armon-Troncoso. That the house is full of such bourgey details as a large ampersand hung as art tells us so much about this couple.

But while some of the plot points are a bit too well-made, the messiness and ambiguity of the larger questions linger.

KATIE KREISLER, BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

KATIE KREISLER, BRIAN AVERS in POOR BEHAVIOR

What does it mean to be a good person? How do you know you’re meant to be with one person or another? Is it good or bad behavior to be faithful when there’s no hope? Is it just using anesthesia dulling the pain of a flat life to accept mere contentment?

The characters don’t know.

The play offers no clear answers.

 

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Copyright 2014 New York Irish Arts
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