At the start of Poor Behavior, Theresa Rebeck -- who may be the most overrated contemporary American playwright by virtue of 15 New York City productions to date -- has Ella (Katie Kreisler), who's married to Peter (Jeff Biehl), and Ian (Brian Avers), who's married to Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), going at it hammer and tongs. Under heated discussion is whether the words "good" and "goodness" have any meaning in absolute terms.
The two are so belligerent that (spoiler alert for anyone who's never seen a play before) it comes as little surprise that after not too long a while something of an extramarital nature surfaces as going on between them. The revelation is only the first of not a few more.
There are also blatantly obvious dramatic contrivances plaguing the poor interpersonal behavior depicted throughout the poor playwriting that unfolds over two acts at the Duke on 42nd Street and on Lauren Helpern's nice rendering of a weekend getaway cottage a few hours outside of Manhattan.
Yes, Rebeck fans and detractors, the scenarist behind the woebegone television series Smash has done it again with yet another work that looks askew at how people go about their lives today to no positive result. This time she's looking at marriages built on sand and how the oceanic waves of rampant dissatisfaction and unpleasant personality traits relentlessly decimate them.
The playwright apparently believes she's confronting life as it's really experienced. To do so here, however, she continually shoves Ella, Ian, Maureen and Peter on stage and off so they can battle with each other in various combinations. Often, they do so with the kind of abandon that people of any sense would avoid when they know other people are in the house and might either overhear what's transpiring or, worse, might walk in at any moment. She also sees to it that people do walk in at moments when she needs them to catch each other out.
Rebeck has said that the idea for the play came to her when she was present for a similar extended guests-in-the-house contretemps. But if she's merely reflecting something based on experience, she doesn't make a convincing dramatic case for it.
It needs to be pointed out that to some extent Rebeck has designed Poor Behavior as a dark comedy. With that in mind, she inserts digressions wherein the four entering-middle-age characters get agitated over things like inedible muffins and basil plants violently pulled from Ella and Peter's garden.
Some of these sequences can be mildly amusing, although again they seem calculated instead of intrinsic to the participants. So, sure, if the sniping is all that matters for getting laughs at the wedding-knot institution, Poor Behavior is a success. But, of course, that isn't all that matters. Verisimilitude enters. One of the four married gets close to the truth of the play's effectiveness when she says, "I don't know what you're talking about half the time."
Who could, since as the loud drama progresses, the eventually self-contradictory stands and attitude reversals pile up totteringly high? For example, Ian's behavior is so execrable that at one point Maureen declares she wants a divorce. Sometime later when Ian decides calling it quits might not be such an unacceptable idea, Maureen dismisses his acquiescence, saying it's important to overlook such outbursts as hers. With things like that going on, Ella, Peter, Ian and Maureen register more and more as couples that wouldn't have married in the first place.
Since voices are raised throughout and at one juncture a frying pan is also raised and wielded, stamina is obligatory. As directed by Evan Cabnet, actors Armbruster, Avers, Biehl and Kreisler prove they're up to it. They're inventive in other ways as well. They surely can't be accused of falling to supply the bile Rebeck has built into the lines.
Incidentally, although Rebeck kicks off this latest nicely produced piece with the angry discourse on the relativity of good and bad as concepts, she unexpectedly lays out her own position on the matter when she reaches the fade-out. Suddenly, she indicates that bad can be an absolute, after all. She reveals one of the four participants as possibly diabolically bad through and through.
Along those lines, it can said that while Poor Behavior isn't reprehensibly bad, it also isn't what you might call good. Well, maybe relatively. But relative to what?