Thursday, August 28, 2014

Off-Broadway Roundup—Theresa Rebeck's 'Poor Behavior,' Naomi Wallace's 'And I and Silence'

Poor Behavior
Written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Evan Cabnet
Performances through September 7, 2014
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

And I and Silence
Written by Naomi Wallace; directed by Caitlin McLeod
Performances through September 14, 2014
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Kreisler and Avers in Poor Behavior (photo: James Leynse)
In Poor Behavior, playwright Theresa Rebeck has written a serious comedy that attempts to dissect two couples during a not-so-wonderful weekend upstate. However, despite a fair share of decent one-liners and bright observations, her play never has the courage of its convictions, falling back on shopworn tropes time and again.

Argumentative Irishman Ian and his flighty wife Maureen are visiting laconic Peter and his spunky better half Ella at their house off the Taconic Parkway (the appropriately crammed and messy house is by set designer Lauren Helpern, with a mighty assist from props/set dresser Faye Armon-Troncoso). The curtain rises on a shrill argument between Ian and Ella about the meaning of "goodness": while their wine-fueled feud may or may not prove that there's a spark between them despite their spouses' presence, it is unmistakably a big yellow highlighter wielded by Rebeck to signal her unsubtle intentions. 

Following the argument, Maureen and Peter, both off to bed, leave Ella and Ian alone; a little while later, Maureen returns and see them embracing, although Ian had just confessed to Ella of his grief over his father's death, and their hug could have been merely conciliatory. But the jealous Maureen doesn't think so, and it leads to serious complications for both couples: Maureen accuses Ian and Ella of having an affair, while a skeptical Peter finally accuses them when Maureen points out that Ian has Ella's earrings—which she absent-mindedly took off and left in the kitchen—in his pocket. (How did she know?)  

The fights continue and abate as the couples leave and return. Later on, Peter catches Ian and Ella in a much more compromising position, after both Maureen and Peter leave and Ian boldly tells Ella to put up or shut up. His ludicrous reasoning is that both spouses already think they are having an affair, so why not have one? Ella, even more ludicrously, acquiesces, presumably to underscore Rebeck's argument about a lack of goodness in our crazy modern world. 

Rebeck wants to show these people in an unflattering light but too often forsakes plausibility to make her not very penetrating points. Crucially, the affair Ian and Ella (and the author) hint at since their opening semantics battle is never made credible for the simple reason that Ian, as written by Rebeck and overacted by Brian Avers, is so unsavory and irritating that it makes no sense for Ella—who comes off as a sensible, smart, grounded woman, at least as played by the sensible, smart and grounded Katie Kreisler—to fall for such a heel and put her stable marriage in jeopardy. Sure, in the real world, there are men and women willing to do that, and broken marriages are everywhere, but Rebeck and her capable director Evan Cabnet never persuasively make the case for such reprehensible (i.e., poor) behavior.

What's left is a smattering of funny lines about easy targets like artisan muffins, childless couples, and Irish food and drink. But that's not why Rebeck wrote her play.

Hicks and Soule in And I and Silence (photo: Matthew Murphy)
I barely remembered One Flea Spare, the first play I saw by Naomi Wallace, which was staged at the Public Theatre in 1998. But after I sat through her drama And I and Silence at the Signature Theatre, it all came flooding back, because both are cut from the same cloth,  beginning with "borrowing" lines from poems for her titles (first it was John Donne, now it's Emily Dickinson). Wallace tackles interesting subjects with occasional insight, little poetry and even less logic, a fatal combination.

And I and Silence recounts the story of two young women, black Jamie and white Dee, who strike up an unlikely friendship while in prison as teenagers and end up barely scraping by nine years later, after their release. Jamie teaches Dee how to clean houses while in jail, but although those skills come in handy to land much needed jobs, both women must deal with the ingrained sexism and especially racism of what's presumably the South in the 1950s. Needless to say, Wallace wants to show that Jamie and Dee, as free adult women, may be even worse off than they were while locked up, a not terribly insightful observation.

Wallace alternates scenes of the locked-up teens with the free women with scarcely any resonance or sense of lives lived or ruined, only Jamie and Dee's mostly banal talk that's occasionally gussied up with what Wallace takes to be poetic utterances. So there's sing-song rhyming dialogue like "I’m dozy, yeah, but hardy as can be/No finer cleaner you’ll come by than me" or bits of pseudo-profundity like "You get one chance with a word. You misuse that chance, you don’t get another and when that happens, they kick you to the curb." 

The nastiness of sexism and racism is never made palpable, despite endless dialogue about it—and anyway, it's already evident what kind of society the girls are trapped in, as shown by the prison sequences, which never ring true either. How would Jamie and Dee continue to keep meeting when they are different cell blocks? No prison would allow such fraternizing, especially between different races, which are deliberately kept apart.

The entire play is a shaggy dog story, mere smoke and mirrors. Even the girls' relationship is kept deliberately opaque, while their sexuality (heretofore hetero) is tossed aside when Dee demonstrates on Jamie's finger how she had to perform fellatio against her will on a nasty boss—whereupon Dee dives under Jamie's dress for some much needed release before their final and violent act of true solidarity. With so little context, it's difficult to sympathize.

If Wallace's script made this pair's motivations more convincing, director Caitlin McLeod might have been able to find a clear way through such deliberate confusions: why, for example, are two sets of actresses needed when the characters merely age from 16 or 17 to 25 or 26? It's needlessly distracting, especially since the paired-off actresses don't look at all alike. A game cast (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks as Jamie, Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule as Dee) is left to drift, along with their director and, most damagingly, their author.

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