“Poor Behavior” at Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street (Closed on Sunday September 7, 2014)

August 18, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Theresa Rebeck asks an important and rich question in her new “Poor Behavior” currently running at the Duke on 42nd Street the new home of Primary Stages. This question might go unnoticed it is so intertwined with Ms. Rebeck’s rant about the state of marriage in contemporary “civilized” culture: and it is a good rant indeed. The real question though is not just whether the institution of marriage is sustainable, but whether the institution of America is sustainable. If there were a time when William Butler Yeats might have an attentive audience, it is at this maleficent moment of antinomian delight midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, /
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned; /
The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)

In other words, poor behavior abounds and no one seems to care much. Playwright Theresa Rebeck seems to care in this challenging foray into finding a (perhaps) moral compass. Two couples share a weekend at one couple’s weekend country home and as wine flows to the bacchanalian brim, trendy muffins fail to sate hunger, and truth emerges in abundance: as does an abundance of histrionics and soul searching. Ms. Rebeck’s script is well structured and the opening argument between Ian (Brian Avers) and Ella (Katie Kreisler) transforms into an argument about morality – the old and the new.

The argument between Ian and Ella appears to be a heated argument between husband and wife and that perception is the first clue to the conflict that drives the play’s intriguing plot where “Everything’s suddenly a question.” This from Ian, “And besides, let me tell you, everyone on the planet is talking about it. We’re crushed, honestly. Do you think we weren’t rooting for [America]? Because we were. You were our dream. And then you threw it away, you threw away the Enlightenment, for what? For marriage? I’m telling you, the entire planet is crushed.”

Brian Avers is the quintessential “diabolos:” that one whose essence is to tear apart, pull down, and separate that which only desires to be whole. His plan – since a kiss in a walk in closet years ago – has been to win Ella over despite the cost. And Ian does this to “save” Ella from her marriage with Peter (Jeff Biehl) that he considers unfulfilled. Ian even squirrels away Ella’s earrings she leaves on the counter-top to further prove to Peter and Ian’s wife Maureen (Heidi Ambruster) he is having an affair with Ella. This is not delusional behavior: this is the work of a human being seemingly bereft of a superego. Peter knows this well: “[Ian’s] just a liar, he’s a trickster, he destroys things, look at this, he’s destroyed three lives, without even, he’s a destroyer and you are letting him, why, why—.“

It is not easy, however, to dismiss Ian as a terrible person. His character is a trope for all those things that push humanity to question their own moral core and the moral core of their nation-state. In fact is this wonderfully morally ambiguous character who is able to assert, “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?”

Katie Kreisler is the perfect Ella, caught in a marriage that has entrapped her (and Peter) and not sure how to escape. Heidi Armbruster is captivating as Ian’s wife Maureen who he describes as “completely raving bonkers, the women is an emotional lunatic from start to finish.” And Jeff Biehl’s Peter is convincing as Ella’s husband: although he refuses to admit that she is having an affair with Ian, he knows that she is and is unable to accept the drowning of “the ceremony of innocence” that admission would provoke. Under Evan Cabnet’s fluid direction, this gifted ensemble cast delivers a quartet of authentic and honest performances.

“Poor Behavior” raises the possibility that “the center is not holding.” But was that center ever meant to hold? Whose center is it? Plays about moral ambiguity are nothing new. This one by Theresa Rebeck is a welcomed addition to the canon of dramatic works that address the “good versus evil” conundrum. The behavior in this worthy play is neither good nor bad (whatever those constructs mean) but rather it is “poor,” wanting, not rich. Whether the answer to the inadequacy of marriage is to abandon all responsibility (as Ian does) is questionable. And it is this type of rich, deep question that the playwright asks in “Poor Behavior.”

Perhaps Ian says it best: “We’re talking about goodness, your favorite subject. Because it all comes back to that, darling. Why on earth are you trying so hard to be good, if goodness is death? Or not even that. What is it’s just an anesthetic? Of goodness is just an anesthetic is it still goodness? Especially if anesthesia isn’t finally just an excuse to release the worst in us. Our own little excuse for poor behavior.”