We’ve all been there — at another couple’s house in the country when too many bottles of wine are consumed over dinner and a sexually charged quarrel breaks out to ruin the whole weekend. Theresa Rebeck (who would probably not want to be reminded of “Smash”) has been there, done that, and written an indecently funny play called “Poor Behavior” about the whole sordid experience. The gist of the dispute is whether “goodness” is even possible in an immoral world. But by jumping feet first into the sexual undertow, the scribe has nowhere to take her argument — except louder.
All four friends are already shouting each other down when the play opens, but two voices ring out. One belongs to Ella (Katie Kreisler, who makes neurotic look attractive), the high-strung hostess of this smackdown, who takes a stand for the existence of goodness and beauty in a mad, bad world. Her overbearing opponent, Ian (Brian Avers, out of his element), is a cynical Irishman who dismisses her as a pathetically naive American idealist.
Ella’s husband, Peter (Jeff Biehl, as bland as the part calls for), who is too nice to live on this bitter earth, tries to play the peacemaker, and Ian’s wife, Maureen (nicely wired Heidi Armbruster), a borderline hysteric, makes a desperate effort to distract the combatants. But they soon give up and retire to their respective rooms, leaving their spouses alone to resolve their fight, repair the damage and take their friendship to the next level of intimacy.
Ian has based his none-too-subtle campaign to seduce Ella on the classic philosophical argument on the dichotomy of good and evil. If good and evil are meaningless abstract concepts that don’t exist in reality, then a hound dog like Ian can do anything he wants to — without guilt or blame for wrecking other people’s lives. Rebeck merely raises the question of whether “basic human decency” can move these irresponsible egotists to resist their destructive urges.
Although this is the kind of not-so-abstract question that makes for sexy after-dinner conversation in a modern comedy of manners, miscalculations on the part of both scribe and helmer Evan Cabnet drain the juice out of it. By coming in on the argument too late and pitching it too high, Rebeck denies us the titillation of watching a cool philosophical debate escalate into passionate fury.
Cabnet must have had his reasons for casting Brian Avers (a conspicuous presence in “N.C.I.S.”) as the bad boy nihilist with the silver tongue. But wishing someone Irish doesn’t make it so, and for all his strenuous work, Avers can’t pierce Ian’s black heart or capture his raffish Irish “twinkle.” Instead of captivating Kreisler’s endearing Ella with his impish wit and irresistible charm, this rough-edged Ian comes across as a browbeating bully.
The spouses don’t have it easy either, as underwritten characters denied significant interplay with their more dynamic spouses. Armbruster (“Disgraced”) has the technical chops to cry on comic command whenever the neurotic-hysteric Maureen has one of her breakdowns. But Rebeck doesn’t give her a chance to show us the underlying sadness of this neglected wife. Patient Peter is allowed one dramatic flare-up, and Biehl makes a meal of it; but again, he’s working with a character who has no depth.
As for the play’s philosophical underpinnings, Rebeck leads us to consider interesting questions about the morality of achieving a goal by orchestrating chaos. But as was the case in her Broadway outing “Seminar,” her snappy dialogue and cutting one-liners draw the kind of laughter that drowns out her theoretical debates.
Ella’s hilarious reaction to the “disgusting” artisanal muffins that Maureen and Ian have brought to the party — “Tomato muffins? People have too much time on their hands” — beats a debate about good and evil any day. As does her cutting putdown of their weekend guests: “That’s the problem with not having kids. You have to hang out with other couples with no kids.”
That kind of trash talk won’t inspire us to contemplate the existential issues that concern the playwright, but it does give us a kick.