August 27, 2014

"Poor Behavior" isn't Nearly Good Enough

Ever since she was canned as executive producer of “Smash,” that misbegotten TV series about putting on a Broadway show, Theresa Rebeck has said that she didn’t get the chance to fully realize her vision of what she wanted it to be. I bought her argument because network execs have a bad rep for interfering with creative visions.

It’s different in the theater, where, by tradition, the playwright has the final say. So I’m now wondering what excuse Rebeck has for Poor Behavior, the misbegotten new play that Primary Stages opened last week at its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Poor Behavior starts off well enough. Two couples are spending a weekend at a vacation home and after a long boozy dinner, Ella, the wife of the host couple; and Ian, the husband from the visiting pair, have gotten into a shouting match about what it means to be a good person. A few minutes later, Ian’s wife Maureen discovers the erstwhile antagonists in a quieter encounter that leads her to suspect they’re having an affair. 

But having established the premise, Rebeck has no idea where to go with it. Accusations are just lobbed back and forth, with occasional time outs for snappy one liners and puffed-up monologs from Ian. 
Rebeck clearly intends the play to be a provocative meditation on morality and infidelity but she paints with such broad cartoonish strokes that the message is no more profound than the slick self-help advice you might get from a TV psychologist.

Poor Behavior might have had a better chance if Rebeck had created believable characters but she doesn’t even make it clear who these folks are (I’ve no idea what any of them do for a living) why they’re friends or even why they’re with their spouses.  

Ella (Katie Kreisler) is supposed to be the most responsible of the group and yet, for the sake of some cheap laughs, Rebeck has her carelessly destroy the only thing they have in the house for breakfast (and who, by the way, invites people for the weekend without stocking up enough food to feed them?).

Ian (Brian Avers), who, for some reason, has been made Irish, is supposed to be the kind of rogue that women find irresistible but seems more like a psychopath. Meanwhile, Maureen (poor Heidi Armbruster) is given little more to do than be hysterical in scene after scene.  And Ella’s husband Paul (Jeff Biehl) is more a prop device than a person.

Director Evan Cabnet and his cast, all of whom have done better work in other shows, seem as frustrated in trying to put this show together as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were by watching it. 

There was no chemistry between any of the actors. What’s worse, there was no reason, except again for the convenience of the plot, that any of their characters would have stuck around instead of hightailing it back to the city.  
Over the last two decades, Rebeck has had 15 new plays produced in New York, three of them on Broadway and she’s already got another one in the pipeline (click here to read about it). I started out a fan but each production of hers that I’ve seen has been less satisfying than the last. 

I don’t begrudge Rebeck her success. It’s so difficult for female playwrights to get their work done that a group of them recently issued the Kilroys’ List, a roster of 46 new plays by women, and a plea that they be put on (click here to read more about their campaign). 

So it's good to see a woman getting so much attention. I just think it may be time for producers and artistic directors to to give some other women a shot and for Rebeck to take some time out so that she can get her act back together and realize whatever vision and talent she may still have.

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