In Theresa Rebeck’s “Poor Behavior,” a British expatriate intellectual spews out a spirited monologue on European disdain for America’s parochialism and obsession with “being good” in the world, all the more extraordinary because he’s using this op-ed moment to get a friend’s wife into bed. As it happens, her reaction – “Honestly, Ian, I can’t tell if this is a seduction or a lecture” – is the very question the play itself keeps raising. But in this world premiere, the Mark Taper thesps’ seduction is so skillful, and the lecture’s ideas so provocative, it may not matter so much when the pieces don’t mesh.
The setup is classic Alan Ayckbourn: A city couple offers a country-retreat weekend to another couple they know only marginally, and marital mixups ensue. Ayckbourn, past master of the bourgeois infidelity romp, would certainly salivate at the achingly beautiful Architectural Digest jewel of a dining/living room served up by designer John Lee Beatty, matched wood and gleaming appliances offering mute testament to the owners’ breeding.
Yet if you called the room “beautiful,” you’d elicit a rage in aforementioned provocateur Ian (Reg Rogers), who as the play begins is engaged in a full volume, late-night drunken donnybrook with his hostess Ella (Johanna Day) on the topic of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong as ephemeral concepts.
We can’t make out whether they’re married to each other or to quieter, tense bystanders Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) and Peter (Christopher Evan Welch). But for sure, the prevailing vibe transcends intellectual disagreement over Aristotle’s relevance, or whether Yosemite’s grandeur was compromised once the U.S. cavalry spilled tribal blood there. (All sorts of outre allusions come readily to Ian, drawn and played as a dead ringer for Christopher Hitchens.)
Past complaints and present-day misunderstandings slowly emerge. Ian wants out of his marriage to seriously disturbed Maureen (“You really are just mad as a hatter,” he tells her quite reasonably); or perhaps not. And Peter may truly be too smug and dull for Ella to tolerate another moment, or maybe not; and – well, now what? How can any of them engage in the pursuit of happiness without compromising some vision of how decent people are supposed to carry themselves?
A cascade of comic business (such as Welch’s close encounter with a basil harvest), and deadpan reactions to same, evoke the best of domestic comedies, Ayckbourn included. A roundelay as to who will go out for pastry, given no two of them are willing to leave the others alone together, is a gem of elegant stagecraft.
Yet try as helmer Doug Hughes may to keep things moving, Rebeck keeps shifting into neutral as the characters air and rebut each other’s philosophies, wittily and smartly but too often self-consciously. We’re eager to know whether Ian’s mischief is careless or calculated, and what’s really going on in Ella’s mind, but every reference to “goodness” or “behaving poorly” sets off a thematic ping momentarily pulling us out of the action.
Moreover, Rebeck’s character definition is as unyielding as types in a medieval allegory. A gleaming-eyed Lawrence embraces Maureen’s paranoia with a vengeance, and Rogers’ droll readings and inspired lurching keep expanding anyone’s definition of “unmitigated bounder.” But he is pretty much the same cad at the end as he was at rise, she more or less equally bonkers.
Welch exudes welcome normality, though when his buttoned up exterior slips into measured rage it’s not a transformation, just another side of the same guy.
Day has the richest opportunities for change, but though she commands our rapt attention throughout, Ella is no closer to personal clarity once the workweek beckons and the foursome is dispersed.
The tension between the morality being earnestly talked out, and the immorality being farcically played out, makes the “Poor Behavior” experience always compelling but strangely grim. And not always in a “good” way.