written and directed by Theresa Rebeck
New Ohio Theater
February 8, 2019
A Weekend in the Country
Teresa Rebeck, writer of Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, NBC’s Smash and more, is one talented lady but her film directorial debut, Poor Behavior, left me scratching my head. Set in a Vermont country house, it deals with two couples from New York spending the weekend together. Everyone drinks a lot and fights incessantly, goading one another into increasingly bad behavior. However, not one of the characters is very interesting nor are the barbs they trade particularly clever.
Early on I anticipated a punch-up between the two husbands and that at least someone would drive away (wrong, two people do.) There’s no back (or front) story—what do these people do when not swilling wine and being unpleasant? We get the country house with some outdoors scenes (in the talk-back, Ms. Rebeck spoke of how “freeing” being outside was), talk of food and evidence of grocery shopping (but no eating) and the joy of hot showers but the whole is one dimensional, sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf minus zingers and fleshed-out characters. The dialogue feels improvisational although Rebeck said there wasn’t a great deal of improv during the seven days when she shot the entire film that employs herky-jerky camera work which doesn’t do anything to enhance the action.
There is one terrific scene in which Alan Smith as Ian, the Irish ex-pat husband with Blarney in his voice when he wants it there, stands on a country road as a somewhat sinister-looking older man drives by. Is he a reminder of Ian’s father who may or may not have recently died? A hint of the devil? Ian’s fear of being judged? (In actuality, he’s Rebeck’s Vermont country neighbor but never mind.) The moment has a touch of menace that’s welcome as it’s one of the few genuine emotions in the film.
What about those “disgusting” muffins, with pretentious flavors that Ella (Katie Kreisler) picks apart to the annoyance of Peter, her husband (Brian Dykstra)? Are they a metaphor signaling that many things that look good at first sight really aren’t? This ties-in to how Ian feels about his wife, Maureen, (Heidi Armbruster) whom he claims to have loved early on but now finds a manipulative nut job. Maureen is so difficult, even when trying not to be, it’s hard to understand how anyone would want to be her friend much less her husband.
At the talk back, Rebeck spoke in half-sentences and bits of phrases punctuated with shrugs. Many audience members seemed to find her fascinating, probably because the theater was larded with film-makers and wannabe auteurs. It was a “you had to have been there” experience making me feel like the sole American in a roomful of Latvian speakers fresh from a group visit to Disneyland.
Somewhere in the deliberate chaos, the film explores goodness and modern marriage, both of which are tested and found wanting. However, it lacks subtlety and ends up close to an extended sit-com which I doubt was what Rebeck intended. She’s both prolific and skilled so I hope she goes on to write and direct works worthy of her abilities. As for this poorly behaved foursome, good luck.