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“Goodness is just an anesthetic,” declares one of the characters in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Off-Broadway’s Primary Stages. It’s but one of the many intellectual arguments espoused in this comedy of ideas about two married couples spending the weekend together at a country home. Unfortunately, while the work displays the playwright’s gift for snappy dialogue, it explores its themes in mostly superficial fashion. It mainly comes across as a poor man’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Set entirely in the kitchen of an upstate New York house, it begins, appropriately enough, with an impassioned drunken argument about the nature of goodness between Irish expat Ian (Brian Avers) and Ella (Katie Kreisler). Looking on with increasing discomfort are Ian’s wife, Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), and Ella’s husband, Peter (Jeff Biehl).
The concept of goodness gets sorely tested over the next 24 hours, as a tenderly romantic late-night clinch between Ian and Ella, precipitated by his emotional recounting of the recent death of his father, is witnessed by the already paranoid Maureen. The issue comes to the fore the next morning, when Maureen bitterly confronts Ian, who perversely lets her think that he and Ella have been having an affair. The fur really begins to fly when she informs Peter, who refuses to believe that his wife has been unfaithful.
The ensuing conflicts among the quartet form the heart of the play, as Ian is revealed to be a provocateur intent on stirring up trouble. It turns out that he and Ella do indeed share an attraction, and that his marriage to the emotionally fragile Maureen — he derisively dismisses her as being “completely raving bonkers” — is on the rocks. It isn’t long before the arguments devolve into such things as Peter ripping up Ella’s basil plants and later, in an even more heated moment, attacking Ian with a frying pan.
The prolific Rebeck — this is the fifteenth of her plays to receive a major New York production; she also created NBC’s ill-fated series Smash — has a knack for crafting well-drawn characters and fast, funny dialogue. But the play too often veers towards sitcom level, particularly with a series of admittedly amusing gags involving the inedible fancy muffins that Ian and Maureen have brought to their hosts.
“Tomato muffins,” Ella says disgustedly after spitting out a bite. “People have too much time on their hands.”
By the time the evening lurches towards its melodramatic conclusion, we’ve long since ceased to care about these mostly unpleasant characters. Despite Evan Cabnet’s incisive staging and the polished performances by the ensemble — Avers is a standout as the manipulative Ian — Poor Behavior is most likely to make you rethink any plans you might have for vacationing with friends.
Cast: Heidi Armbruster, Brian Avers, Jeff Biehl, Katie Kreisler
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Evan Cabnet
Set designer: Lauren Helpern
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Presented by Primary Stages in association with Jamie deRoy and Barry Feirstein
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