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Theater review: 'Poor Behavior' at the Mark Taper Forum

September 19, 2011 |  8:50 pm

Poor behavior 1 

The after-dinner argument is already at full inebriated pitch at the start of “Poor Behavior,” Theresa Rebeck's quarrelsome comedy now receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. It's that time of the night, after the empty wine bottles have piled up, when sound begins to drown out sense and those with the loudest voices convince themselves that they're moral philosophers.

The question that has Ian (Reg Rogers) and Ella (Johanna Day) all worked up is an age-old one: “What is goodness?” Ian, a British expat married to Maureen (Sharon Lawrence), a neurotic American, sees everything through a secular, postmodern filter. Ella, who's hosting this weekend get-together at her stylish country home with her husband, Peter (Christopher Evan Welch), still believes in universal values and doesn't appreciate Ian's sneering at what he calls her “American idealism.”

Ian and Ella are clearly more drawn to each other than they are to their spouses, who are like bystanders at an intimate, sexually charged blitzkrieg. These two tireless combatants will have the chance to dangerously test their convictions during this tumultuous visit, which only grows more disorderly — and overextended — as drunken night gives way to headachy day and the conflict between happiness and responsibility takes an adulterous turn. 

Poor behavior 2 Rebeck, an accomplished TV writer and novelist as well as a prolific playwright (“The Understudy,” “Mauritius,” co-author of “Omnium Gatherum”), has cooked up an intriguing premise, but unfortunately this thinking person's farce is glued to sitcom tracks. There's a surface vitality to the play, set in that enviable real estate zone that's a throwback to Broadway's pre-recession days, but the action gets bogged down in comic business that reveals less about the characters than Rebeck's formulaic approach to dramatic writing.

The production, directed by Doug Hughes (“Oleanna” on Broadway and at the Taper, “Doubt” virtually everywhere), isn't lacking in polish or crackle. John Lee Beatty's shelter porn set, which situates the action in Ella and Peter's showroom kitchen, certainly lends the impression that the humorous antics are top of the line, even when the jokes are played to death, such as one endlessly repeated bit involving ridiculous tomato confit muffins that frustrate those foraging for a traditional hangover breakfast.

Rogers and Day are happily in their flamboyant element, delivering Rebeck's wit with a breathless, all-out attack. Rogers' wave of hair is continually in motion, and his high-flying English accent is just as rambunctious. Day, whose brashness was so refreshingly utilized in Lisa Loomer's “Distracted” at the Taper, conveys the sense that Ella is a pressure cooker who must be carefully monitored or any minute she'll blow. Both actors command the stage, though they have trouble locating more subtle psychological textures, probably because they remain unwritten.

The other two roles put me in mind of Honey and Nick in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Not that Rebeck's play bears comparison with Albee's masterpiece, but that Maureen's mousy histrionics (irritatingly conveyed by Lawrence, who is outfitted like an affluent rube by costume designer Catherine Zuber) and Peter's increasingly perturbed passivity (neutrally rendered by a wasted Welch) have a hard time rising above Ian and Ella's more spectacular firepower.

One puzzling feature of the play is what Rebeck chooses to tell and not tell. We learn that the two couples are New Yorkers and find out a little bit about their backgrounds (both Maureen and Peter are originally from the Midwest, which presumably is meant to account for their blandness), but not much more. My companion wondered what they did for a living while I pondered Ella's invocation of Aristotle and semiotics in the heat of battle. Who are these people? Their passports must be issued from that populous country of middling drama.

Rebeck — who's especially busy this season with another play, “Seminar,” opening later this fall on Broadway, and the NBC midseason series “Smash,” for which she's the creator and executive producer — specializes in a heavily carpentered comedy of ideas. She enjoys the woodworking of plot as much as she delights in the hard volleying of debate. These two sides of her sensibility, however, aren't always well fused. The math is reliably done, but the essential poetry is missing.

The characters of “Poor Behavior” don't have enough independent life to convince us of the truth Rebeck is groping toward. Ian is an immoralist posing as an amoralist, a Miltonic devil who tries to persuade Ella that the sin of self-denial is the greatest betrayal of all. It's a compelling argument, but there's something schematic in how it plays out. Even when everyone is behaving really, really badly, the play feels a little too neat.

 

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--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

'Poor Behavior,' Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 16 $20 to $65.(213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/PoorBehavior Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Photos: Top: Johanna Day and Reg Rogers. Middle: Rogers. Credit: Craig Schwartz/Center Theatre Group

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