Two couples, a pleasant house, plenty of wine, and some arcing sexual current: Could there be a theatrical vehicle with a more interchangeable set of parts? Theresa Rebeck keeps squirting dramaturgical WD40 into her whirring contraption of a play Poor Behavior and, for a while, it works. Unctuously clever dialogue oozes out of Ian, the cynical Irishman (Brian Avers). His wife, the mercurial Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), careens into wittily unhinged rants. Marital arguments click smoothly along fixed tracks. It’s always entertaining to watch a weekend in the country speed so efficiently toward disaster. Soon enough, though, the machine starts to creak, giving off a clangor of whys and whines and reproaches that you can hear rumbling toward a huffy exit from ten minutes away.
In a Primary Stages production at the Duke on 42nd Street, director Evan Cabnet tries to make Poor Behavior seem rooted and specific. The front door of the house designed by Lauren Helpern and belonging to a comfortably smug couple, Ella (Katie Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), opens into a carefully countrified, well-applianced kitchen. A bag of Fairway coffee sits on the counter, suggesting that we’re a couple of hours from Red Hook or the Upper West Side. It’s summertime — There Will Be Basil! — which gives costume designer Jessica Pabst a chance to create a gamut of weekendwear from total schlub to high-strung Hamptonite. A set of skis leans patiently in a corner, mocking the notion that, a few months from now, all this white upper-middle-class domestic tranquility will still be intact.
But Cabnet is doing battle with Rebeck’s attempts at universality. Like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, Poor Behavior uses the medium of the two-couple quartet to expose the squishy, brainless passions that heave beneath our civilizing crust. But though Rebeck’s writing is sporadically witty, and all four actors dish out their characters’ annoying mannerisms with relish, the whole structure lumbers stiffly. Banal spats intertwine with dorm-room philosophizing, so that each scene feels longer than the one before. Cast members smolder and shout, but never get a chance to let their ferocity burst into flame. They’re too busy following the rigid choreography of combinations: Ella + Ian, Ian + Maureen, Maureen + Peter, Peter + Ella, and so on …
When the lights go up, Ella and Ian are waging a drunken verbal battle over the nature and existence of goodness. Two hours later, after the stupor has lifted, the hang-overs have passed, and a pair of marriages hangs in the balance, the two of them are still nattering on. “Why on earth are you trying so hard to be good, if goodness is death?” Ian harangues. “Or not even that. What if it’s just an anesthetic? If goodness is just an anesthetic, is it still goodness?”
“Honestly, Ian,” Ella snaps, “I can’t tell if this is a seduction or a lecture.”
It’s a dilemma that afflicts the entire play.