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‘Poor Behavior’ outcome of poor marriages, good comedy

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By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — Watching a marriage implode can be painful.  Watching two marriages implode can be hilarious.  In playwright Theresa Rebeck’s play Poor Behavior, now having its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, two couples, long-time friends, are spending a weekend together in the country.  They are not academics like the couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so they’re not as intellectually vicious as Martha and George.  But  they are educated, so their dialogue is intelligent, if irrational, and frequently over the top.

Ella and  Peter (Johanna Day and Christopher Evan Welch) are the hosts.  It is  their tasteful country home to which they have invited Ian and Maureen  (Reg Rogers and Sharon Lawrence), an invitation which they almost immediately regret.

As the play opens, all four are screaming at each other simultaneously.  They are  having one of those esoteric intellectual arguments about good and evil that most of us left behind when we left our college dorms.  But the  scene is a very effective introduction to the temperaments of the  participants.  Peter, an agreeable, passive sort of man, quits first.   Then Maureen, who is sarcastic, shrewish, and totally self-involved.   But Ella and Ian continue their conflict.  Ella is assertive and  confident; Ian is loquacious to the point of incomprehensibility, wryly  cynical, and maddeningly manipulative.  “You need to see yourself as  good, but goodness is just an anesthetic,” he shouts at Ella.

Very soon, Maureen, who becomes disoriented when she isn’t the center of attention, latches on to the delusion that her husband Ian and Ella are having an  affair.  This apparently untrue suspicion only serves to feed Ian’s  penchant for demonic mischief.  Instead of reassuring his distraught  wife by denying it, he amuses himself by resorting to innuendo and  watching her dissolve into hysterics and paranoia.

Meanwhile, Ella and Peter are trying to cope, having cozy little disagreements of  their own. Their arguments, however, are the harmless sort that  long-married couples habitually have.

And then  there are the distractions.  Maureen has insisted on bringing a box of  special muffins that have all sorts of inappropriate ingredients like tomatoes and pepper.  Appalled, Ella remarks that people who invent suchawful-tasting stuff “have too much time on their hands.”  But when she  offers to go into town to buy breakfast croissants and Ian insists on  going with her, another huge argument develops as to whether all four of them should proceed to town to have a terrible breakfast at the local  greasy spoon.

In Poor Behavior the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, the acting is superb, and the outcome is inevitable and sad, but not totally devastating.  Director Doug Hughes has kept the chaos moderate and the potentially catastrophic nastiness in check, and scenic designer John Lee Beatty has provided a  spectacularly attractive setting.  The message that is sent is that every marriage has its periodically dreary, out-of-love intervals, but the need for connection is so universal that even a practiced dissembler like Ian will manipulate everyone and everything to achieve it.  As
playwright Rebeck puts it, “The married people in the play…are not  monsters; they’re hopeful people looking for love.  They just do it very, very messily.”  And, she might add, with a great dollop of brio.

Poor Behavior will continue at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through October 16th.  Call 213-628-2772 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

 

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