Los Angeles Theater Review: POOR BEHAVIOR (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Harvey Perr on September 24, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

ON ONE’S VERY BEST POOR BEHAVIOR

Ian is a monster.

Oh, not your fire-eating dragon sort of monster. Quite possibly you’ve met this kind of monster yourself. He’s British; he’s smart; he’s opinionated; he’s articulate; he is, more often than not, an alcoholic, although the kind of alcoholic who, you are bound to admit, can outdrink anyone else in the room and still stand on his feet, his rapier-sharp tongue getting looser and wittier by the moment. Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrIn brief, he’s the kind of monster who, in real life, you’d keep as far away from as is humanly possible. Get any closer and he’s more than likely going to bring out the monster in you and in everyone else in close proximity to him. But, in the theater, he is endlessly fascinating. Just try and keep your eyes away from him. Did you ever watch a rat try to get out of the maze it has created? Like I said: endlessly fascinating.

And, as created by Theresa Rebeck in her glitteringly dark comedy Poor Behavior, Ian doesn’t pull any punches. From the moment the lights go up, in an atmosphere so highly charged that you might indeed wonder if it can possibly get any more charged, Ian is on the attack. It’s an intellectual attack, of course, Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey Perrbut the venom in it clearly speaks of more brutal intentions. You might even ask why Peter and Ella even bothered to ask Ian and his seemingly timid wife, Maureen, to their country home for the weekend. This is surely not the first time he has exhibited such ugly behavior. But, truth be told, Ella seems to be standing up to his every argument with bold assertiveness. Peter, on the other hand, seems terminally bored. And Maureen, tight-lipped, cowers. They certainly didn’t invite Ian and Maureen for Maureen’s company. And, let me remind you, the weekend has barely got under way.

So, why?

Perhaps because, despite his bullying, he is, damn it, so attractive in his casually drunk way.

Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrAnd because nastiness can sometimes be a virtue: it often brings out the best in writers; it certainly provides a field day for actors. If you were an actor, whom would you rather play?  Pollyanna? Or Medea? It has certainly brought out the best in Rebeck, who has so much fun ferreting out the profound nastiness from the surface nastiness. And the actors, under the skillfully calibrated direction of Doug Hughes, jump into the swirl of things with unalloyed pleasure. There is no more fun to be had than watching actors apply their skills so gleefully. Ah, they seem to be saying, what greater joy is there than in letting your nastiness out as far as it can go?

So, yes, although Poor Behavior is a tough examination of the cruel ways in which people can treat one another under the worst conditions, and, despite the fact that some dark truths lie at the bottom of so much nastiness, this is an outrageously funny evening in the theater.

Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrMost of the credit, perhaps, goes to the actors. Reg Rogers has made Ian his own – a standard bearer for any other actor who dares to tackle the role – turning deviousness into the most natural way of navigating through life; through his own life, for sure, and through the lives of others, as well. Like the perennial flame to which moths are drawn, Rogers burns bright. As those around him grow more and more intense, largely in reaction to Ian’s sang-froid, it is bracing to watch Rogers grow more and more relaxed, barely hiding the smirk implicit in his own sense of assured Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey Perrsuperiority and, at the same time, it is curdling to slowly discover the needy child he is harboring within.

Playing a dull, cowardly failure of a husband – particularly in contrast to someone as vivid as Ian – cannot be an easy task, but Christopher Evan Welch’s Peter is as subtle a creation, on its own terms, as is Rogers’s Ian. He makes totally real an almost frighteningly weak character that ultimately finds his own monstrousness through the sheer doggedness and pain of self-discovery. His Peter evokes sympathy, just as one feels a slight queasiness in the face of so much decency being trampled on.

Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrJohanna Day is strongly and vibrantly present at all times, and a beautiful match in every verbal exchange with Ian, but it is in the increasing recognition of her deep attraction to Ian that the real passion of her Ella comes through so brilliantly. Every scene between the two of them is superbly realized; theirs is a dance of desire and release.

Sharon Lawrence weeps spectacularly and has the play’s most disturbingly funny moment when she reacts to Ian’s harangue about how crazy she is; her total lack of insight into her true self becomes, in that moment, the clearest picture of who she is. But it is a part that, in the writing, Rebeck should think of emotionally enriching.

Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrThe play couldn’t have received a more handsome production: the kitchen of a house in the country, which the estimable John Lee Beatty has designed, is straight out of Architectural Digest and still manages to look lived in; Catherine Zuber’s costumes play down the affluence of its characters in much the same way that such people play down their own affluence by the clothes they wear.

Poor Behavior by Theresa Rebeck – directed by Doug Hughes – at the Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review by Harvey PerrI have purposely kept away from disclosing too much of what happens, because one hopes that its potential audience will be as curious and intrigued by the events as I was. The ending is a conundrum, and, as such, can be seen as being a little pat, but it has in it enough uncertainty and ambiguity to leave a tantalizing taste in one’s mouth. Its hard edge and withering tone makes Poor Behavior a masterpiece of both overstatement and understatement. One’s disposition towards it will depend on how gladly you suffer monsters, but, if you willingly go with it, it will surely put you in touch with your own private monster.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Craig Schwartz

Poor Behavior
Mark Taper Forum
scheduled to close October 16
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

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