The stakes start out deceptively slight in “Poor Behavior,” the new Theresa Rebeck comedy that’s just opened at The Duke on 42nd Street. As the play gets underway, two couples are enjoying a wine-fueled discussion about “goodness,” and whether it exists in some pure form.
“Trees are good,” argues one.
“If a tree falls on your house, that’s not a good tree,” counters another, with the kind of breezy, we’re-so-evolved flair reminiscent of Yasmina Reza’s 2006 “God of Carnage,” a similarly dark comedy about two couples who meet to discuss an issue in a “civilized” fashion.
Alas, there’s carnage in store for Rebeck’s four weekenders, as it turns out—though mercifully, the only thing being upchucked here is the occasional prissy tomato confit muffin. The “goodness” set-up is a precursor to the real topics at hand: fidelity and morality. We’re here to examine when one should stop to consider the impact of his actions on another, and to wonder: What happens if we behave with no one else’s feelings in mind?
If you follow Rebeck, creator of NBC’s “Smash” and one of the most prolific playwrights around (“Seminar,” “Dead Accounts”), then you know what’s in store: existential debate, the occasional chase around the kitchen with a cast-iron pan and dialogue that’s exciting, but that also—despite four excellent performances—can sometimes come off as unrealistic.
The setting for “Poor Behavior” is an idyllic country house somewhere north of the city, along the Taconic. It’s the kind of faux-rustic place a certain upper middle-class New Yorker would buy for getaways, though here it becomes a prison for Peter and Ella, the owners, and Ian and Maureen, their weekend guests.
Ian (the fine New York stage actor Brian Avers) is an Irishman out of central casting whose views on America have soured since his arrival years earlier. A subsequent marriage to uptight Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), rapidly deteriorating, likely occurred somewhere at the intersection of “I love her” and “I need a green card.”
The connection between this foursome is tenuous: Maureen long ago dated Peter’s brother. Muted and proud of having conquered his temper (or so he tells himself), Peter (Jeff Biehl, below) thinks himself securely married to Ella (Katie Kreisler), a high-strung urbanite who on more than one occasion evokes a live-action Tina Fey. Otherwise, we know little about the foursome. What do they do for a living? Where does everyone aside from Ian hail from?
Ian is the troublemaker in this gaggle, and his nefarious design for the weekend is evident early on. With every speech—a Yeats quote here, a paean to his dead pa there—Ian’s words become more of a splinter under the skin of his wife and his hosts.
“Poor Behavior” marks Rebeck’s 15th production on a New York stage. As in “Dead Accounts,” there are exchanges in “Poor Behavior” that are questionable. The whole first act here seems to hinge on a matter that could be resolved if Peter would just ask Ian and Ella one direct question. (It’s of note that Rebeck has said the play was inspired by “a really disastrous week” she and her husband spent away with friends.)
The four actors are excellent, notably the devilish Avers (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”), as a louse I wish were just a bit more likable. As it is, he’s so clearly a man with absolutely no moral compass that you have to wonder how he existed in a marriage for so long, and how anyone else would even contemplate anything other than a one-night tryst with him. Blindfolded … and with earplugs.
Still, Ian gets you thinking. When Ella, examining her marriage, insists to Ian that Peter is her “best friend,” Ian replies: “God, that sounds like death. Why do Americans persist in thinking that it is ‘moral’ and ‘good’ to remain addicted to an institution which has driven them mad?”
It makes Ella stop for a minute, and it gives us pause, too. If there’s ever been theater that invites a discussion afterward over a glass or seven of wine, then “Poor Behavior” is it. Rebeck may be posing certain issues (the merits of commitment, for one) as questions, but it seems clear from the outcome that she already has her own answers.
The Primary Stages production of “Poor Behavior,” through Sept. 7 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $70. Visit PrimaryStages.org, or call 646-223-3010.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn