Johanna Day and Reg Rogers
in Poor Behavior
(© Craig Schwartz)
Johanna Day and Reg Rogers
in Poor Behavior
(© Craig Schwartz)
Actions speak louder than words in Theresa Rebeck's frequently hilarious and occasionally insightful new play, Poor Behavior, now in its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. And that's saying something, for Rebeck's words can be sharp as knives and just as easily cause serious wounds.

Director Doug Hughes keeps the pace snappy, which helps detract from the insufficient amount of background info we receive and the limited emotional depths the characters reveal. Indeed, what could have been a more deeply felt examination of moral choices and consequences settles instead for just a bright and shiny topcoat where the blood can pool but never stain.

Married couple Ian (Reg Rogers) and Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) are spending a weekend in the country at the spacious home of their long-time friends, married couple Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) and Ella (Johanna Day). Fueled by his arrogance, her idealism, and too many bottles of merely adequate wine, Ian and Ella engage in a passionate dinner table argument about the nature of goodness (mixed, of course, with dashes of pointed political and religious commentary). But before the weekend is over, what began as a critical debate becomes a reflection for the escalation of suspicion, the disintegration of trust, and the collapse of multiple relationships.

The catalyst for all this humor-laced drama is Ian, a charming, insufferable, egocentric Brit who capitalizes on innuendo and misdirection. Through his actions he implies an illicit romance between he and Ella, but by his words he denies it. The set-up is given increasing credibility by his own theoretically innocent (read "good") deeds, supported by Maureen's paranoid insecurity, Roger's passive-to-pissed off temperament, and Ella's complete oblivion (at first) to what Maureen and Roger are getting so upset about.

Rebeck has created two wildly different pairs here. Peter and Ella are a couple grounded in recognizable realism and are buoyed by the impressive talents of both Welch and Day. Ian and Maureen, however, are both over the top, albeit in different ways.

Ian is a glib clown, quick with a joke and superficial hurt look should you question his good intentions. As entertaining and delightful as he is (especially in the hands of the thoroughly engaging Rogers), Ian is always putting on a show. Even when he's alone with Ella in scenic designer John Lee Beatty's gorgeous, well-appointed kitchen/dining room, Ian is still more concerned with proving a point than with actually connecting to her.

Maureen is a high-maintenance neurotic, full of suspicions and accusations and given to emotional, melodramatic outbursts, and, for some of the play, one wonders what ever possessed Ian to marry her in the first place. We find out when he reminisces about their engagement party, recalling how vibrant and exciting she was twelve years ago.

Indeed, it would have been helpful if Rebeck had let us catch even a glimpse or two of that long-ago girl -- anything to give Maureen more than one piercing level. Why she didn't do so is just one of several questions that never get an honest-to-goodness answer in this play.