About halfway through Theresa Rebeck’s bitingly funny new play Poor Behavior, Ella (Johanna Day), a brittle and slightly neurotic wife, offhandedly comments, ”This whole weekend is a disaster.” At that exact moment, she’s talking about something as mundane as tea, but the utterance may as well be the tagline for this addictive, farcical drama (playing through Oct. 16 at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum).
The story centers on two couples — Ella and Peter (Christopher Evan Welch), and Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) and Ian (Reg Rogers) — who are away at the first couple’s spacious country home for the weekend. The fireworks begin as Ella and Ian drunkenly fight about things you should definitely never talk about while inebriated: goodness and morality. Shocker: These themes come back to bite all the characters, and they’re your first indication that the relationships are headed into rather dangerous territory. Ella and Ian are at odds until the wee hours of the morning. And since Ian never made it into bed with his wife, Maureen (who apparently has a tendency to spiral into crazy delusions) assumes the worst.
Before long, all four are pointing fingers at one another. Ian stokes the fire by not exactly denying his wife’s accusations of infidelity, while the show’s only seemingly sane character, Peter, breaks down into a surprising fit of his own. Rebeck cleverly stages the action so that only two actors are on stage at any one time for much of the first act, enabling much delightful miscommunication. The characters are surprisingly self-aware, as they often wonder what viewers may be thinking. ”What are we talking about?” Ella yells at one point. They regularly get so wrapped up in the cathartic thrill of arguing and yelling that they eventually lose track of what their disagreements originally were about — and it’s beyond amusing to watch. It becomes clear, however, that constant disagreements are the only way these four can communicate — largely because they’re all creating lots of drama in their otherwise drama-free, fat-and-sassy lives.
While all four stars turn in riveting performances, the standout is Lawrence — a character-actor fave from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. John Lee Beatty’s country-house set is immaculately designed, and his props — from uprooted basil plants to muffins to endless glasses of pink wine — enhance the show without feeling intrusive. Under Doug Hughes’ careful direction, Behavior is a hoot: Those aforementioned muffins factor into a hugely funny sequence that rivals any sugar high they’d give you.
The bulk of the credit goes to Rebeck, who’s having quite a year. Her next play, Seminar, premieres on Broadway this November in a production starring Alan Rickman, and she created one of this season’s most anticipated new shows, NBC’s behind-the-scenes-of-Broadway musical drama Smash (debuting early next year). In Poor Behavior, she serves up another character-driven, relationship-heavy story that will assuredly make you think twice before planning your next weekend in the country with friends. A
(Tickets: centertheatregroup.org or 213-628-2772)