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'Poor Behavior' Excites With A Barrage of Verbal Fireworks

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Christopher Evan Welch, Reg Rogers, Johanna Day and Sharon Lawrence in "Poor Behavior." Photo: Craig Schwartz
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In today's burgeoning plutocracy, where in the words of a Midnight Oil song "the rich get richer [and] the poor get the picture," selfishness has become a cardinal virtue. Not only do the ends not care about justifying the means, but finders are most definitely keepers and the losers are cordially invited to shut up about it. Theresa Rebeck's new play, Poor Behavior, isn't about economic inequity, but about its core value of self-interest and the question of how far one will go to get what one wants. The world premiere production at the Mark Taper Forum is witty and blessed with a dazzling performance by Reg Rogers, but it's a trifle chilly to fully embrace.

Married couple Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) and Ella (Johanna Day) are having their friends Ian (Reg Rogers) and his wife Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) over for a weekend in their country house. Ian and Ella are having an drunken late night argument about whether the terms "good" and "nice" have any meaning in the modern world, a heated conversation that eventually drives each of their spouses to go to bed early. The next morning Maureen discovers that Ian never went to bed and is still wearing his same clothes from the night before. Paranoid, she accuses her husband of having an affair with Ella. He doesn't deny it, and four lives begin to explode.

Rogers is spectacular as Ian, showcasing the character's verbal agility and sense of eternally amused savoir faire with undeniable energy and charm. The amazing thing about the performance is that Rogers manages to keep Ian relatable, even if not necessarily sympathetic, considering the moral contortions Ian has to go through to justify his actions. Day brings a prickly brilliance to Ella, able to go toe-to-toe with Ian in an argument, but still trying to cling to and believe in moral values. Welch is tremendously sympathetic and low-key amusing as good guy Peter, and this makes his later, angrier scenes all the more striking. Lawrence is unfortunately stuck with the only underwritten character, the one-note plot device hysteric Maureen, but she commits to it admirably and gets her fair share of laughs.

Doug Hughes' assured direction does a marvelous job of keeping a talky show visually compelling via very active staging, and he's gotten great work from his cast. Rebeck impresses with sheer quantity and quality of wit, channeling aspects of Coward and Stoppard but giving it her own bitter twist. This is a terrific play, but it could use some trimming in the overlong and repetitive second act, and the ending is frustrating, because she finally gets to the central question and conflict of the piece — and then doesn't answer it. John Lee Beatty's expansive kitchen and dining room set is gorgeous, all warm woods and well-heeled coziness, a perfect place in which to tear friends and family apart.

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Poor Behavior is playing at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2011. Tickets are available online.