Theresa Rebeck is busy these days. Her new play, Poor Behavior, just received its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, and two more of her plays are slated to premiere in the next six months: Seminar, on Broadway starring Alan Rickman, in the fall; and What We're Up Against, at Houston's Alley Theatre, in the spring. She's also the creator of the NBC series Smash, about the mounting of a Broadway musical, debuting early next year.
Her critique of the "anti-intellectual" argument that writing for TV — which she's also done, for NYPD Blue and Law & Order: Criminal Intent — is a form of "selling out" can be found in the program of Poor Behavior. In Britain, for example, the TV, film and stage industries are all forged together in London, rather than being bifurcated in L.A. and New York. That's one reason stage scribes writing for TV isn't an issue in Britain, she says (though the compensation for British TV writers is comparatively modest). She adds, in her own defense of writing for American TV (if she even needs a defense), "Everybody knows that's where the money is, and if you want to have anything remotely like a stable life, you occasionally do that."
Rebeck is right to suggest that not only is it snobbish to disparage playwrights for also being TV writers, but its implicit call for artists to isolate themselves professionally from the media of popular culture is inherently anti-intellectual.
And yet there's a blanket of sitcom artifice that covers many of her stage plays, and Poor Behavior is no exception. This raises the question, which only she can answer, of whether she's a product of the TV culture by temperament and taste; or whether her money-making excursions, and the incentives they provide, the structures they demand and the millions of people they're designed to entertain, have influenced her playwriting. Because the deeper a writer digs, the more the artifice of crowd-pleasing conventions, and the large audiences they hold, tends to drop away.
A drunken argument that opens Poor Behavior sets up a clearly articulated intellectual paradigm about the nature of goodness, then shrink-wraps that idea around a subsequent romp of infidelity: little secrets revealed with mathematical precision, all punctuated by some exquisitely executed double-takes and the logistical parameters of an increasingly lunatic bedroom farce (handily staged by Doug Hughes). This is so even if the bedroom in set designer John Lee Beatty's trademark Rustically Tasteful get-away-from-New-York-City home is offstage. The set focuses on the kitchen, with its island and cutting boards, which is stocked with absolutely no food.
The play is an absorbing, meticulously structured comedy of "poor behavior" (a British expression that attempts to lend some civility to actions that have none) about the pitfalls of marriage. In many ways, it recycles the premise of Donald Margulies' 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends, also dramatizing the plight of two upper-middle-class couples, one of which announces a pending divorce, thereby derailing the seeming tranquility of the other. The most striking differences between the two works is that Margulies' characters have jobs they occasionally talk about (Rebeck's don't), and there's a houseful of food in Margulies' play, food that the characters chatter about endlessly. The refrigerator in Rebeck's play is as barren as the marriages on display.
Hard to tell at play's start among the four characters who's married to whom. This is because the two intellectual powerhouses are drawn into a bitter, overlapping, late-night and intoxicated dispute about the essence of goodness. These are Ian (Reg Rogers), an insufferably arrogant expat Brit who almost makes Christopher Hitchens seem modest; and the hostess, Ella (Johanna Day), who is not his wife, though they spar as if they were wedded.
Rogers has a kind of reptilian charm. He lurches forward as he speaks, with spine tilted forward for the glide, which then yields to a jocular, fleet-footed bounce around the room, or up the staircase. In his performance, Ian's arguments are the personifications of blitheness, arguments for argument's sake. He's a Machiavelli-cum-Tartuffe, spinning the rationalizations of moral relativism into a justification for the upset and destruction he's about to unleash on two marriages, one being his own.
There is no inherent goodness, he asserts. Not even all trees are good, certainly not a tree that falls on your house.
He more than meets his match in Day's Ella, who, with her throaty voice and physical stature, stands poised as though with a flytrap, catching Ian's every attempt to pass off presumption for intellectual rigor, haughtiness for argumentation. "You presuppose that there is no elegant argument for goodness," she says. "You presuppose that a corrupted and hypocritical and even hysterical distortion of morality is the real thing, which is shoddy logic at best."
It's against this backdrop that Ian's dainty wife, Maureen (Sharon Lawrence), and Ella's husband, Peter (Christopher Evan Welch), stand idly by, idling. When Maureen gets her moment in the spotlight, she pontificates on curtains, and you can see her husband's eyes glaze over.
Ian treats Maureen with such cheerfully cavalier contempt, degrading her as "crazy," and taking up her consequent threat of divorce with a happy and well-reasoned escape-hatch offer to get the process moving as soon as possible, you have to wonder at the motive behind his cruelty — as though having any consideration, let alone empathy, were a mark of the soft, sentimental idealism he denigrates.
Not that she's an angel: She plants the rumor of an affair between her husband and Ella, a gossip that lingers and feeds on the low-level paranoia that informs so many relationships.
This would include the marriage of Ella and Peter, which at first looks so secure, as shown with keen observance by Rebeck and Hughes in repartee and shared tasks that form marital bindings over time yet paradoxically become part of the habits that slowly infect sexual desire. Curiously and strategically, Ian chooses not to deny the gossip of infidelity. By play's end, tender-hearted Peter will be shredding Ella's carefully tended garden and wielding a frying pan as a weapon.
They already think the affair is true, so what's the difference, then, in making it true, Ian suggests to Ella, like Tartuffe trying to seduce Elmire.
It's telling that Ian, a marvelous character — a rogue, opportunist and master in the art of plausible deniability — has his case for moral relativism affirmed by the action: that people are neither good nor evil, that things just happen, and we're condemned, by whatever God inspires or tortures us, to muddle through this cesspit of corruption. And if we choose morality as our guide, that's just a fiction that serves the illusion of sanity. Sartre wouldn't have it any other way either, but as sitcoms go, it's bleak stuff.
The larger issue is what differentiates a sitcom from a more exploratory work. The sitcom — with the singular motivation of its protagonist, and the calculated procession of character collisions, like the strategically envisioned, ricocheting motions of billiard balls — reveals the playwright's apparent hand, the clear sense that the action is being manipulated with an Agatha Christie-like design rather than unfolding as eerily as life does. This is where the comedy's allusions to moral philosophy look like so much set decoration, and why this play of ideas, like Ian, is merely pretending.
POOR BEHAVIOR | By Theresa Rebeck | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m.; through Oct. 16 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org