A Weekend in the Country

Brian Avers’ turn as the bad boy with a good heart but no soul is the best of “Poor Behavior.” | JAMES LEYNSE

Brian Avers’ turn as the bad boy with a good heart but no soul is the best of “Poor Behavior.” | JAMES LEYNSE

Theresa Rebek is challenging for a critic. The facile entertainment of her plays delivers an hour or two of diversion, but they often don’t stand up to more considered thought. Her new play at Primary Stages, “Poor Behavior,” is not as well-crafted as “Seminar” or as slapdash as “Dead Accounts,” but like the others it suffers from serious flaws in terms of believability.

The play comes off as a poor imitation of “God of Carnage,” which concerns another battle royale between affluent couples. Yasmina Reza trenchantly probed the inherent nature and the belief systems of her battling couples, while Rebek offers no such depth. Instead, she relies on glib references to NPR and high-end groceries for easy laughs without much substance.

“Poor Behavior” concerns two well-off New York couples and what happens when their staid and controlled lives of privilege are threatened. Ian and Maureen have come to visit Ella and Peter at their weekend retreat. The play opens at full pitch as Ian and Ella are having an argument about what constitutes goodness — or if, in fact, goodness exists. We are left to assume that the volume and vitriol result from excessive wine consumption, but what was not a real discussion at the get-go soon spins out of control. The argument’s intellectual laziness and lack of convincing polemics may be intended to reflect the characters’ drunkenness, but the effect is contrived.

Little things spin out of control in Theresa Rebek’s deeply flawed new play

We learn that Maureen, Ian’s wife, is a certifiable nut, both narcissistic and paranoid. Peter, Ella’s husband, is struggling with controlling his anger issues. All of this is conveyed in clumsy exposition that sets the stage for the inevitable pyrotechnics when Peter and Maureen come to believe that Ian and Ella are having an affair.

At every turn, reveals seem more about facilitating the next bout of histrionics than anything arising organically from fully developed characters. The reason Ian is Irish appears to be solely as a device to make way for cracks about his Irishness and, conversely, about the deficiencies of Americans. Every attempt to examine the incongruities of human nature is forced, simply there to manipulate the plot. Given the high-octane opening, the chaos, recriminations, breast-beating, tears, and violence that follow can’t help but be delivered feverishly.

Rebek has written some legitimately funny one-liners — notably about esoteric artisanal muffins — but her situations and characters become increasingly implausible. Of course, implausible is one of Rebek’s trademarks, as anyone who watched the so-bad-you-can’t-turn-it-off “Smash” on NBC can attest.

Under Evan Cabnet’s direction, the play moves quickly, but not quite quickly enough to gloss over the shortcomings. Lauren Helpern has designed a lovely country cabin set and Jessica Pabst’s costumes are well chosen.

Even with the play’s flaws, the cast gives it a go with as much as they’ve got. Katie Kreisler as Ella does a good job of conveying her Upper West Side attitudes, even if the performance borders on caricature. Jeff Biehl is adequate as Peter, trying very hard to make his character believable. Heidi Armbruster comes pretty close to adding a third dimension to Maureen.

The evening, however, belongs to Brian Avers as Ian, who manages to be simultaneously appealing and repellant. He is the bad boy with a good heart and a longing for simple affection — but no moral compass. Unfortunately, the character as writen is more a type than a person, and charm alone isn’t an ingredient sufficient to make him either believable or sympathetic.

These are not people you would want to spend a weekend with. Two hours is more than sufficient to be exhausted by this play and the people who are, as the song goes, “twice as upset as in town.”

POOR BEHAVIOR | The Duke on 42nd Street | 229 W. 42nd St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun 3 at p.m. | $70 at dukeon42.org or 646-233-3010 | two hrs., 10 mins.

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