Drama evokes emotion

From the moment the lights went up, Poor Behavior vibrated with an electric, tense and fast-paced energy that perpetuated the show from beginning to end. Center Theatre Group’s newest original play, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Doug Hughes, left audience members keeling over in laughter, gasping with shock, gripping their seats in horror and silently sobbing with heartbroken empathy.

Realist encounter · Rebeck’s latest production, Poor Behavior, is staged in a country home, and features two couples engaged in a philosophical debate, on the meaning of “goodness.” Many of the scenes incorporate witty dialogue, filled with double entendres and realistic confrontations. - Photo courtesy of Craig Schwartz

The events that unfold in one immaculately decorated country home kitchen over the course of a weekend between four good friends explore human emotion, walking the fine line between the exposition of intensely raw human truth and the exaggeration of extreme human behavior.

The show in its entirety, however, portrays phenomenal character arcs, punctuated by exquisite moments of emotion, engendering an intense, fervent response from even the most unenthusiastic theatergoer.

The play gets off to a quick start as the audience is thrust into the middle of a wine-induced argument between a pompous British man, Ian (Reg Rogers), and a strong-willed American woman, Ella (Johanna Day), as their spouses watch in subdued horror, futilely attempting to intervene.

The argument, addressing the meaning of “goodness,” is loaded with double entendres that subtly foreshadow the impending chaos and drama.

Ella and her polite and endearing, yet naïvely ignorant, husband Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) host the other couple, Ian and his emotionally unstable wife Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) for a weekend getaway at their country home in Ohio.

The setting seems innocent enough, but the initial drunken duel between Ella and Ian sparks a cataclysm of suspicion, betrayal, lies and broken hearts, enticing viewers with twisted yet enthralling behavior.

The following morning  the audience witnesses a peeved Peter, angered and embarrassed by his wife’s inebriated production, and a basket case Maureen, distraught that her husband elected to spend the evening in a heated fight with another woman rather than come to bed with her.

It doesn’t take long for Maureen to accuse her husband of having an affair with Ella, an allegation Ian masterfully sidesteps with the response, “I don’t deny it [the affair],” enabling a blazing fire of doubt and mistrust for Peter in his wife’s fidelity.

The play, which takes place over two evenings and one very long day, is truly a story of deflection and subtext as so little can be said within the limited time frame, while so much is still communicated. The majority of the conversations that occur center around muffins, tea, coffee and water pressure, but all of these items merely attempt to mask biting, accusatory and often painful topics with a guise of normalcy.

Only a brilliant script and impeccable acting can transform a curt comment about muffins into a contemptuous personal character attack, leaving the audience experiencing both disbelief and understanding.

Rebeck crafts her characters meticulously and masterfully, but it is the cast that brings them to life as extraordinary paradigms of dynamic, lively people. For instance, Ian, whose callous humor and proclivity fan the flames of turmoil, drives the dramatic structure of the play, and uses his self-deemed superiority over Americans and irrefutable wit to dodge and deflect any and every sticky situation in a hilariously offensive manner, leaving the audience simultaneously wanting to cheer for him and to smack him upside the head.

Ella, the unanimous audience favorite, retains a similar charm mixed with a sarcastic intelligence and strikingly realistic gusto about her that engenders audience sympathy even in light of scathing accusations against her.

Her husband Peter, on the other hand, has the most defined character arc, transforming from a boyish, naïve, drama-avoiding husband into a powerful, capable and wronged man whose fury alone ignites the gut-wrenching climax of the play.

The only mild disappointment surfaces in the character of Maureen, whose constant sobbing and profuse mood swings seem cartoonish and over-stereotyped, even for the “crazy” character.

The brilliant script and precise directing are irrefutable, but it is the overwhelming sensation of human truth infused in the show that catapults Poor Behavior into the ranks of excellence.

Impeccable comedic timing and irresistibly defined characters make the play a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but the glimpses of dejection, betrayal, hopelessness and lust that permeate the humor haunt the audience with the unmistakable sensation that this is real, this is truth.

Poor Behavior is playing at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 16.