Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Weekend in the Country

September 30, 2011


Johanna Day and Reg Rogers in Poor Behavior Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
When I was a child, I used to love watching the Carol Burnett Show on CBS. However, one thing I never understood was why the recurring skits where Carol played the chronically unhappy Eunice constantly at war with her mother and various family members were so popular. I never found the endless arguments and shouting funny, but obviously others did. And to this day I find that corner of the humor world difficult to relate to. Thus I went into the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s latest play Poor Behavior now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum with some trepidation. The title alone suggests the kind of thing that happens when people stop being polite and start getting…well, you know. And when the play opens in the middle of an all out verbal brawl between Ian, played by Reg Rogers, and his friend’s wife Ella, played by Johanna Day, I was wondering what I was in for. But to my surprise, Poor Behavior actually turned out to be a clever, well-written and surprisingly provocative adult play.

Certainly the word is the thing in Rebeck’s world, and her two couples unleash barrages of sharply witty dialog at one another. Ian is married to the somewhat mentally unstable Maureen, here a hysterical Sharon Lawrence. The two have come to the country home of Ella and her husband Peter, a likable Christopher Evan Welch, for the weekend, and soon Ian and Ella are in a row over morality and religion that seems to irritate their spouses with its palpable sexual energy. There are some misconstrued gestures and sidelong glances that soon drive Maureen to suspect Ian has cheated on her with Ella. Slowly all four of the characters are drawn into the speculative affair which Ian refuses to deny in a way that forces Ella closer to him. Rogers and Day are superb in generating tension between the two characters amidst some eloquent verbal bantering that pressures the audience to keep up with them. Rebeck masterfully keeps the story aloft with a series of unfolding complications that manage to avoid becoming just another thriller or succumbing to some easy, pat position on the moral issues in the work. That isn’t to say that she avoids painting herself into a bit of a corer in the end of the show. But I don’t want to spoil the fun. There is an honesty to Poor Behavior as well that is both charming and thoughtful. And in a play that is always in the midst of another argument, that is a good thing. The show runs downtown through October 16.

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