Morally Bankrupt and Vacuous...but Funny

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It's late. We're a couple of bottles of rose into a dinner at Ella and Peter's beautiful woodsy place outside of the city - no, not Los Angeles. New York. Joining Ella and Peter for the weekend are another married couple: Ian and Maureen. Ian's a drunk ex-pat Brit - think a less witty and erudite version of Christopher Hitchens. He and Ella, not his wife remember, are arguing about the nature of 'goodness.' Sort of. Sort of arguing about goodness - though if you listen closely not really. And really it's less of an argument than a not so veiled intellectual flirtation. You see where this is going, right?

These are the opening moments of New York playwright Theresa Rebeck's world-premiere play Poor Behavior, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.

The late night flirtation yields a morning-after accusation from the Brit's histrionic wife that clearly he's sleeping with Ella. Oddly, the Brit doesn't seem to deny it so there's some tense and witty repartee among the four. Then before you know it, and thanks to a conveniently placed set of earrings, they're talking divorce and well…Ian and Ella suddenly find themselves alone for the rest of the weekend.

That all happened rather quickly, didn't it?

And even stranger, Ian and Ella don't seem to be harboring some deeply closeted passion - well they did kiss in a closet five years ago. But there's no 'my god, I've loved you always and can't live without you.' Instead, our British Lothario's argument is 'hey, they think we're having an affair so the damage is already done, right?'

Ian and Ella's infidelity, and really the whole play, feels a bit like a formulaic, empty exercise - a sharply written one but an exercise, nonetheless. The plot points feel, well, like plot points. We go from dinner party banter to dissolving two marriages in a little more than one act and the only real casualty is a basil plant.

Playwright Rebeck is writing in the vein of Neil LaBute's moral abandon, where an audience is shocked by the inhumane actions of the characters. Trouble is in Poor Behavior we never really learn about what makes these people tick and there's nothing terribly shocking. Infidelity is simply a device and Rebeck never really takes responsibility. It's all surface with no real depth.

A friend summed it up best after the show, "Morally bankrupt and vacuous,…but funny."

While I'm on the topic of responsibility - New York playwright, New York characters, New York story, New York actors - notice a theme? Yet, Center Theatre Group's motto is "LA's Theatre Company." Poor Behavior is another Center Theatre Group show that's been cast out of New York, began rehearsals in New York, et cetera… Does this matter? If we lived in a city bereft of talented actors - no. But we're in LA and if there's one thing LA has it's actors. And playwrights. And stories. It'd be nice if our major regional theater invested a little more stage time in Los Angeles and a little less time in New York.***

Poor Behavior plays at the Mark Taper Forum, downtown through October 16.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2:30 minutes

*** To learn more about CTG and its attention to LA talent, Anthony suggests reading Don Shirley's LA Stage Times article.

Banner image: Reg Rogers in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz