“Peter is one of my oldest friends,” says Maureen (Heidi Armbruster). Her hand clasps her collar to underline her moral certainty, but we’re not at all convinced. Just a moment ago, this volatile New Yorker had excoriated her supposed “friend” (not in the room) for telling people that she’s too psycho to marry. Now, however, she takes a 180-degree turn because it’s convenient in a spousal argument. Maureen’s moment of hypocrisy counts as just one of thousands of distortions and delusions in Poor Behavior, a new play by Theresa Rebeck. Set in an upstate country house in the aftermath of a drunken dinner party, Rebeck’s verbal drama offers an opprobrium of our morality of convenience — from the littlest lies we tell ourselves to outrageous truth twisting.
On one level, Poor Behavior (directed by Evan Cabnet) is just a hellish weekend in the country, when two married urban couples mix and explode. Maureen suspects her crafty husband, Ian, has turned unfaithful with their smooth-talking hostess, Ella (Katie Kreisler). But talking it out just makes Maureen’s suspicions balloon. Eventually, it’s hard to know what’s true. Even when facts emerge, it’s difficult to say who’s in the right. That uncertainty is by design, of course. The play opens with a heated discussion (between Ian and Ella) about what can be defined as “good.” Subsequent scenes demonstrate how slippery the moral high ground can be — especially in long-term relationships, which force us into constant self-defense. But the drama is more than a farce about marital infidelity: Rebeck also gestures more subtly to the contradictions underlying national myths and international relations. In early scenes Ian, an Irish émigré, argues with his American hosts about culture and philosophy, opening up a rift that only grows. Listen closely to these couples as they justify themselves, and you can hear echoes of post-9/11 world politics. Maureen’s accusation is the marital equivalent of those weapons of mass destruction never found in Iraq: Relations unravel, and discord ensues. Like every nation and group, Rebeck’s quarreling yuppies claim to be righteous while acting destructively. Notions of goodness, one of them points out, are just “an anesthetic” to make us feel good about our behavior.
Despite this intelligent premise, Poor Behavior comes off as an irritating play to watch. That’s partly because Rebeck’s characters are such unstintingly contemptible folks, and we’re asked to observe every maneuver and permutation in their stagy, hysterical domestic crises. The men are either relentlessly manipulative (Ian, played by Brian Avers), or plainly in denial of their feelings (Peter, portrayed by Jeff Biehl). The women are emotional volcanoes (Maureen), or annoyingly smug (Ella). It doesn’t help that the writing overextends at every turn: Ten-minute rants about artisanal muffins tend to be cloying rather than amusing and psychologically revealing. (Can America’s new-play houses please issue a stop order on jokes about upscale groceries?) And the ponderous speeches inserted into this too-twisty narrative weigh heavily — especially Ian’s monologue in the second act.
Ultimately it’s hard not to feel lectured by a play that sermonizes about how self-serving our morality can be. Then again, who can be trusted when it comes to deciding what’s right and wrong? When it comes to Poor Behavior, nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.