Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior opens at full throttle. A drunken Irishman called Ian is engaged in a high-volume, wine-fuelled argument with an American called Ella. Their nationalities loom more significantly than most other characteristics since we never learn much about their backgrounds or current work situations. In this loud, occasionally funny production from Primary Stages at The Duke, countries allow for neat contrasts between Europeans, who are beyond redemption, and Americans, who had the chance for enlightenment but botched it.
“The Irish haven’t done anything but get drunk and write poems for 1,000 years,” says Ella, who is married to a brooding man called Peter and is portrayed with intense ambivalence by Katie Kreisler. Ian brays back that he came to the US because it represented the “fierceness of the present” but his life in New York came undone when he saddled himself with his wife, Maureen, whom he calls “an emotional lunatic”.
Directed by Evan Cabnet, Poor Behavior takes place not in New York City but a two-and-a-half-hour drive away in a country house. Its plot turns on whether Ian is having an affair with Ella. Maureen thinks they are; Peter, initially, does not. The premise is juicy enough to sustain a two-act drama, but the execution, like a batch of muffins brought as a houseguest offering by Ian and Maureen, turns out to be rather dry, as well as repetitive.
Whether you find Poor Behavior engaging will depend largely on how stimulating you find Ian’s corrosive company. (Maureen and Peter, competently played by Heidi Armbruster and Jeff Biehl, are for the most part simmering or shrieking bystanders.) As interpreted with obnoxious swagger by Brian Avers, Ian initially registers as the brand of lout from whom you’d flee at a party. You can understand, however, why his aggressive conversational style might attract drinking chums, and why his liquor-swelled belly could be overlooked by women.
Even so, his prodding questions about the nature of good and not-good (it is telling that the drama is called Poor Behavior not Bad Behavior) feel awfully sophomoric. The nature of morality has been more cunningly plumbed by Rebeck in such works as Seminar and Omnium Gatherum, but her dialogue still has a welcome muscularity.