James Leynse
Melissa Rose Bernardo
August 18, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

We gave it an D

If there’s anything more awkward than arriving in the middle of a dinner party, it’s arriving in the middle of a dinner party gone wrong. And that’s precisely where audience members find themselves when the lights come up on Poor Behavior, the arduous new Off Broadway comedy from prolific playwright (and Smash creator) Theresa Rebeck: thrust into an inebriated argument about the meaning of the word goodness, ”American exceptionalism,” ”European superiority,” morality versus semiotics, Irish poetry, and, oh, all the other things people fight about after a few $22 bottles of wine. ”It’s from Hungary,” says Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) of the high-priced hooch. ”This is the new good stuff, I heard it on NPR.”

The hostess, Ella (Katie Kreisler), and her guest Ian (Brian Avers, with a passable Irish accent), are doing most of the screaming; meanwhile, their respective spouses, Peter (Jeff Biehl) and the aforementioned Maureen, are just hoping for a swift exit. We know how they feel.

Bafflingly, Rebeck—who’s created dozens of complex, beautifully flawed heroines dating back to the smarter-than-she-looks Georgie in her 1992 Pygmalion riff Spike Heels—has saddled us with two incomprehensibly, irredeemably annoying female characters. When Maureen’s not trying to avenge her own broken marriage by destroying Peter and Ella’s, she does little more than stomp, wail, cry, scream, and generally radiate negativity and bitterness. Brittle, self-centered Ella, who seems to be barely aware of Peter’s presence, isn’t much better. And Ian is the worst of the lot. This insufferable bore is meant to be the object of both women’s affection? The only smart thing Maureen does is chuck an empty wine bottle at his head. (Regrettably, he ducks.) As for Peter, well, we too are barely aware of his presence, even when he’s running around waving a frying pan like someone who’s wandered in from a Martin McDonagh play.

Poor Behavior is a little like the fussy artisan muffins Ian and Maureen bring for breakfast. Ginger blueberry tomato confit, peach mango peppercorn: They sound enticing. But nothing about them works. D

(Tickets: dukeon42.org)

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