NY Theater Review By Michall Jeffers
We’ve all been at that party. People start drinking too much, getting loud, and pretty soon, there’s an ugly scene. We feel uncomfortable, and lose our respect for the jerks who are involved. Oh, to be anyplace else.
This is the beginning scene of Poor Behavior, and the production’s major flaw. In a four character play where everyone’s unpleasant to a fault, with no one to root for, we rapidly lose interest. I knew I was drifting when I began to spend an unconscionable amount of time trying to figure out what town was “two-and- half hours up the Taconic” from NYC. Millbrook, maybe? This is the location of the weekend cottage where the action takes place. The setting is right on; the quilt on the wall, wooden windows with red flowers just outside, the Fiesta Ware dishes all affirm that this is, indeed, a country getaway. I found myself more interested in why Ella and Peter had brought in a new stainless steel refrigerator than why their invited guests, Maureen and Ian, were so miserable.
Acclaimed author Theresa Rebeck has more than earned her stripes. She’s the first American female playwright to have fifteen new works presented on the New York stage. She created and was the show runner for the first year of TV’s “Smash,” which quickly gained cult status. But here, she’s given her actors a clearly daunting task. The cast is uniformly good, with Katie Kreisler the stand out as high voltage Ella. Brian Avers is a Jeremy Sisto lookalike, complete with the obligatory stubble. He does a noble job trying to make the contentious Ian relatable, but he’s saddled with a hackneyed stereotype; isn’t it time to retire the flamboyant, drunken, loquacious, untrustworthy, but sometimes charming, Irishman from the stage? Kreisler and Avers have real chemistry, which fires Ella and Ian’s argument as to whether there’s such a thing as good and bad, and also makes their sexual attraction undeniable.
We’re told from the beginning that Maureen is crazy, so Heidi Armbruster has virtually nowhere go as the action progresses. Still, she keeps Maureen believable, and after a while, we understand how anyone could lose her mind being married to Ian. Jeff Biehl lets us see both the love that Peter has for his wife, and the slow burn which is finally brought to a boil by Ella’s behavior.
Rebeck writes with a dry humor which often hits the mark. “People have too much time on their hands” is absolutely truthful when dealing with tomato infused muffins. I could do with a lot less “fecking” comments from Ian, but the first couple of times, it’s amusing. The action occasionally segues into some enlivening slapstick; director Evan Cabnet makes the most of the extreme revulsion generated by the ridiculously trendy breakfast treats. And when a frying pan is used as a lethal weapon, the stage comes refreshingly alive.
Poor Behavior comes dangerously close to being a watered down version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, without the emotional heart. With the talent involved in this production, I expected a more gripping evening of theater. Theresa Rebeck’s While I Yet Live opens at the Duke on September 23; my hopes are high for a more compelling theater experience at this lovely little playhouse.
Poor Behavior, Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street.
Through September 7, 2014
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
Cast: Heidi Armbruster (Maureen), Brian Avers (Ian), Jeff Biehl (Peter) and Katie Kreisler (Ella)
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck; director, Evan Cabnet; set designer, Lauren Helpern; costume design, Jessica Pabst.
Presented by Primary Stages, Casey Childs, executive producer; Andrew Leynse, artistic director; Elliot Fox, managing director; in association with Jamie deRoy and Barry Feirstein