Theresa Rebeck on the Virtues of New York Actors, the Perils of Star Casting, and the Creation of Poor Behavior

The prolific playwright brings her sharp wit to Primary Stages.

Theresa Rebeck is the author of Poor Behavior, a dark comedy that will open Primary Stages' new season at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Theresa Rebeck is the author of Poor Behavior, a dark comedy that will open Primary Stages' new season at The Duke on 42nd Street.
(© David Gordon)

When it comes to her new dark comedy Poor Behavior, Theresa Rebeck is kickin' it old school. The prolific author of plays including The Scene and Bad Dates, and her director, Evan Cabnet (The Model Apartment), has cast the play with a foursome of New York stage actors — a novel concept in an era when star-driven productions are the ones that usually take precedence. And instead of opening cold on Broadway like her last two New York outings (Dead Accounts and Seminar), this one will see a relatively under-the-radar run (July 29-September 7) at The Duke on 42nd Street, the new home of off-Broadway mainstay Primary Stages.

On a break from rehearsal, Rebeck sat down with TheaterMania to discuss how the casting process was so much easier in high school, why New York actors are the "greatest on the planet," and where goodness falls in an immoral world.

In your own words, what is Poor Behavior about?

It is a play about two couples who spend the weekend together in the country. There's a drunken argument at the beginning and everything goes south from there. The question on the table is, Is there such a thing as goodness? Does goodness exist? Can you define goodness? The play circles questions of morality and how to be a moral person in a world that seemingly has no understanding of it anymore. A lot of larger questions told in the guise of a dark domestic comedy. Lives are ruined and reborn in somebody's kitchen.

What made you want to write about that subject?

I often find it maddening to live in America, in a way that is both amusing and horrifying to me. America clings to versions of itself that are absolutely hypocritical. I can't shake my outrage at it, so I write about it. And I do feel like we're more and more in the throes of a false morality. As a people of a nation, we don’t talk about that…and I felt like talking about it. In a lot of ways, the play is about America, like The Scene was. A lot of my plays are.

Your plays have been performed by major movie stars and well-known theater actors. What have you learned about the process, having dealt with both?

That's a good question. One of the things I've really been excited about, in terms of working at Primary Stages, is [that] they really wanted to step forward and just cast this with New York stage actors. While I often work with people with higher visibility and like it, you look at the play in a different way when there's not a person who's specifically that person in the mix.

How so?

There's something different about the way you experience the play. I make my life with New York stage actors and I love them. They're the best actors on planet earth. When we first started talking about casting it, there were short lists, and…maybe we didn't want to go through the lists. I thought, shouldn’t we be casting the way we cast in high school? — where you go in and try out for the play, and then they have callbacks, and read three of you together. There was something more coherent about that as a way of casting…I'm very thrilled this is the way we approached it. We went after people we thought would want to do our play and we have a beautiful cast. It's a spectacularly gifted and muscularly talented group of people, and funny. You know you're in the hands of people who— This is their dream in life, to do your play. It's uncomplicated.

It's hard not to love watching New York actors get down and dirty with a play.

[For them] it’s a lifelong [dream]. And they get better and they do different things, and occasionally someone steps out and does television for a season. But it's very much like the experience of going to see Much Ado About Nothing in the Park [at The Delacorte Theater]. There's Brian Stokes Mitchell, and John Glover, and Hamish [Linklater] and Lily [Rabe], who were in my play Seminar, and Zoë Winters, who's an incredible young actress. She's the real deal. It's exciting to see a young actress with those kinds of gifts. A lot of times, people get overlooked for a while, and it's exciting when someone lands that early, sort of like Lily did, where you go OK, they're gonna get to work enough that they'll get to grow.

What's next for you, after Poor Behavior?

I have a new play called Zealot that's being done at South Coast Rep with Charlayne Woodard. I'm very excited about…the McCarter Theatre Center is reviving [my play] The Understudy on its main stage this fall. It's going to be done in this huge cavernous space, as if you really were backstage at a Broadway theater. I love that play.

Do you play favorites?

Every now and then, you do have a favorite, and that's one of my favorites. I don’t know why. It just seems so mysterious and hilarious. It is a love letter to the theater, and I love that about it.

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Closed: November 2, 2014