Two couples plan to spend a weekend together at a country house. Sure, no one can remember whose idea this was, and nobody seems to be having a very good time. And the wine is flowing more than liberally, and the “country” is upstate New York. But it could still turn out great, right?
Well, it might not if one of the guests is a sociopath. One might be suicidal. One might have anger management issues. And a few are definitely self-inserts of playwright Theresa Rebeck, who has long been known to use characters as mouthpieces for her own opinions, to varying degrees of success.
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The two candidates for this prestigious assignment in “Poor Behavior,” which plays through this weekend at the Duke Theater, are Ian (Brian Avers) and Ella (Katie Kriesler). They bicker like others flirt, taking up opposing viewpoints on topics like morality and goodness to size each other up and flesh out what are presumably Rebeck’s thoughts on the matter. That leaves their respective spouses, Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), to stand in as foils. Maureen, who is simply written as crazy and unlikeable, accuses Peter and Ella of having an affair. And she’s determined to draw levelheaded Peter into the drama that she most likely fabricated (because she’s just so crazy). Finally, he begins to believe that it could be true. And Ian decides that if their spouses already think he and Ella are cheating, they might as well go ahead and do it. Or are they supposed to refrain, just because it’s “bad” — even if they’ll still be treated like adulterers, regardless?
More importantly, did Ian set the whole thing up so that he could convince Ella to sleep with him?
Despite the pedantry that dominates the dialogue, and the flaws in the character dynamics, thank goodness the play is still wholly entertaining. About 95 percent of that credit goes toward the actors themselves, who are absolutely pitch-perfect in their characterizations of this extremely dysfunctional quartet. They find spots to wedge in nuance and add quirks that make their sometimes-cardboard characters seem like real people after all. Some credit must be given to the set designer and props master, who do a great job of making the place and situation feel real. And one last piece falls into place in a heart-quickening surprise in the last leg of the play; it may not quite fit the tone of the rest of the script, but it gives the energy in the room a much-needed boost to carry the audience through to a shrug-worthy “make of this what you will” ending.
If you go
Through Sept. 7
The Duke at 42nd Street,
229 W. 42nd St.