‘Poor Behavior’ Theater Review: Theresa Rebeck Scores a Real Smash Off Broadway

Director Evan Cabnet keeps the plot line crackling nicely, even delivering a Grand Guignol touch right out of “Wait Until Dark”

If George Bernard Shaw had conceived Stanley Kowalski, you would have Theresa Rebeck‘s character Ian, who is at the center of her new play, “Poor Behavior,” which opened Sunday at The Duke on 42nd Street. Or, to look at this Irish cad Ian in another way, imagine Kowalski crossed with the late Christopher Hitchens. Ian, as portrayed in a brilliant performance by Brian Avers, is irritating, provocative, bombastic and absolutely riveting to watch, even if you’d never want to be in the same room with him. A few rows away in a theater are close enough.

Ian is a lot smarter and much more articulate than Stanley. In fact, he never stops talking, which is why, unlike Stanley — who throws things — Ian is always causing people to throw things at him, whether it be a bottle of wine or a frying pan. Ian never lifts a finger to harm anyone. He doesn’t have to, what with his tongue, which is more lethal than most men’s fists. But like Stanley, there’s an earthy sexiness to Ian’s big ego and self-centered demands. He’s got the requisite scruff, although a bit more gut than most Stanleys sport nowadays. Add it all up, and Avers’s Ian captures our attention for all of the play’s two hours and 15 minutes.

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Has Ian slept with Ella (Katie Kreisler in a tough, feisty performance), his hostess for a weekend in the country? Or is he just teasing his wife, Maureen (the stolidly neurotic Heidi Armbruster), when he coyly refuses to deny the affair in Ella’s kitchen? Ian has this way of saying the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can’t stop watching this man create one emotional train wreck after another.

For most of act one, Ella’s husband, Peter (Jeff Biehl), plays the mediator. As we later learn, he has taken classes in anger management, so he probably relates to Ian in some weird way. Despite the much less flashy role, Biehl’s achievement here is every bit as breathtaking as Avers’s. Fans of “The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” series will immediately recognized his overly measured, slightly constipated delivery of thoughtful nonsense as a near parody of the unctuous Chris Harrison, always there to bring distraught couples down lightly. Watching Peter lose everything he learned in those anger management classes is one of the true joys of Rebeck’s second act.

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Director Evan Cabnet keeps the ping pong-turned-boxing match crackling nicely, and a true entertainer, he even delivers a Grand Guignol touch right out of “Wait Until Dark” in the second act. Occasionally, Rebeck puts a few too many thoughts into Ian’s very Irish mouth, such as when he lets go on Americans’ marriage fixation. More intriguing is what gets dropped in act one: a dialogue about married couples without kids having to hang out with other married couples without kids because they don’t have kids. Hence, this weekend in the country. If Ian and Maureen, and Ella and Peter, had children, would they be so upset about the low water pressure in the shower or their basil plants being difficult to grow? And more importantly, would they have time to have affairs or worry about their spouses having affairs?

Rebeck, of course, is the creator of NBC’s “Smash.” Her “Poor Behavior” lives up to that title.

“Poor Behavior” is presented by Primary Stages. It runs through Sept. 7 but most likely will receive a deserved extension.