Beware the charming and scruffy Irishman with the gift of gab. That's the biggest takeaway from Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior, now making its New York debut with Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street. There's plenty to enjoy in this high-decibel dramedy about the weekend getaway from hell, provided you embrace Rebeck's contrivance for what it is.
The play takes place in the upstate country home of Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Ella (Katie Kreisler). Before we even meet them, Lauren Helpern's painstakingly detailed set feeds us obvious clues about the nature of our dramatis personae: a crate of Pellegrino, a bag of Fairway coffee, ski equipment in the corner. Out of this blue-ribbon diorama ("yuppies in their natural habitat") emerges a gaggle of effete Manhattanites drawn in such broad strokes they could have walked out of a New Yorker cartoon. Sound designer Jill BC Du Boff's classical underscoring of the opening blackout (the third movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata) hints at the presto agitato tone of what is to come. Naturally, the play starts in the middle of a full-blown debate about moral relativism, shouted over bulbous goblets of NPR-recommended Hungarian wine.
The primary combatants in this debate are lady of the house Ella and houseguest Ian (Brian Avers), a witty and arrogant Irish émigré. Ella believes that you can objectively label things as "beautiful" (Yosemite Valley) and "good" (red wine). Ian thinks those terms are just the product of outmoded morality. Ian's wife, Maureen (Heidi Armbruster), and Peter look on in horror as the argument descends into name-calling. Once their spouses leave the room, however, Ian and Ella are far tenderer with each other, much to Maureen's horror. The weekend slowly and painfully unravels from there, as adult niceties cede to violent emotional outbursts.
This process is expertly orchestrated by director Evan Cabnet, who has led this talented cast to some truly excellent performances. Chief among them is Avers, whose demeanor carefully straddles the line between rom-com love interest and litigation attorney. He has an endless capacity to bloviate until words carry practically no meaning. You may feel the urge to punch him as he spouts off endless justifications for his sociopathy, but his adorable smile keeps your first in check.
As Ian's wife, Armbruster subtly captures the wild-eyed insanity that can only come from years of marriage to a double-speaking emotionally manipulative hot guy. You would want to give her a hug if you could be certain she would eventually let go. Of the four, Kreisler's Ella is the most recognizably human, a confused mix of values and flaws. For many, she will also be the most relatable. Others will relate to her stalwart husband, the one who manages to hang on to reason longer than any of them. Of course, once he lets go, he really lets go.
There's something incredibly satisfying about watching Biehl violently slam a handful of basil onto the kitchen table. In fact, all of the object-throwing and kitchen-shouting in this play is delicious, in the same way that Doritos or Little Debbie snack cakes are: You know they have little nutritional value, but they're just too tasty to resist.
An overly long second-act monologue from Ian attempts to temper the gourmet food-tossing Olympics with a little wisdom, or at least illuminate his motives (beyond boredom). It does neither and feels a bit shoehorned in. There is no need to offer sympathy for the devil in this story. Every other moment of the play makes it clear that there is one antagonist driving this crazy train off the cliff. Sometimes, it's OK to just accept a villain as a villain.