Thursday, April 9, 2009

Upstaged Satire

Why Torture Is Wrong…and the People Who Love Them
Written by Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Starring Amir Arison, David Aaron Baker, Laura Benanti, Audrie Neenan, Kristine Nielsen, John Pankow, Richard Poe

Performances March 24-May 3, 2009
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

Benanti and Pankow in
Why Torture Is Wrong... (photo: Joan Marcus)
The real world has finally caught up to the absurdist plays of Christopher Durang, if the evidence of his latest, Why Torture Is Wrong…and the People Who Love Them, is any indication. What he shows us in his typically sarcastic glimpse at our post-9/11 world is now part the “reality-based world,” rendering his play, if not moot, less than timely. As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have found, satire is regularly upstaged by reality.

Why Torture Is Wrong…and the People Who Love Them (that unsyntactical title amusingly alludes to our former president’s garbled syntax) begins as our heroine Felicity wakes up one morning after a particularly bad night of drinking to discover that not only is she in bed with a strange man, but she has also married him. His name is Zamir, and although dark-complexioned and of undetermined origin, he insists that he’s Irish.

Felicity decides to annul the marriage, which the anger-prone Zamir bristles at. She visits her parents to explain what happened and ask for advice: her befuddled mother Luella and rabidly Republican father Leonard are no help, of course. Later, at a bar, she bumps into Reverend Mike, a shady preacher/porno director who married them, even though he noticed that she was constantly falling asleep. (“I thought maybe you were a heroin addict,” he says in his defense.)

Meanwhile, Leonard is sure that Zamir is up to no good, and calls up his colleagues in an ultra-right wing shadow government to tail him. The spy, Hildegarde (who has an unrequited crush on Leonard), overhears what sounds like a conversation about an impending terrorist attack, and soon Zamir is tied up and is subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques by Leonard, Hildegarde and another spy who beep-beeps like the Road Runner. These wackos go by the code names 3:10 to Yuma, Scooby-Doo and—naturally—Looney Tunes.

This plot summary does Why Torture Is Wrong a disservice, for as this increasingly preposterous story plays out, there are all sorts of tangents on which the celebrated author of Beyond Therapy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Sex and Longing gleefully goes off. In fact, the play’s best moments are when Durang takes potshots at easier targets, like the state of Broadway Theater. “Are Americans not writing plays any more?” asks Luella when Felicity describes seeing hundreds of plays by Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Martin McDonough, Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Frayn. After her daughter answers in the negative, mom’s deadpan retort, “Just as well—Americans are very stupid,” is priceless. Durang runs this verbal gag into the ground, but his jokes at the expense of Hooters—including visualizing an upscale version—is a real hoot.

When Durang sticks to the topic at hand, he scatters his shots at the Bush administration’s sins and indecisive, spineless Democrats with increasing inconsistency. What works brilliantly, however, is the hilarious caricature of a right-wing nut: Leonard is sure about everything, even if he’s wrong about everything. He’s also enacted with relish by Richard Poe, an actor with a low, stentorian narrator’s voice that makes dialogue like this positively lash out at the audience:
“That was a good time, the 1950s. Father knew best, mother agreed with him, the children had their problems but they followed his advice, and things worked out. Of course, that was before ‘the gays’ started living together and ruined heterosexual marriage.”

Nicholas Martin’s savvy direction wrings every last drop out of Durang’s acidic script, with assistance from David Korin’s sensationally revolving set, which is a dazzler: we are dizzyingly thrown from room to room, most hilariously when Felicity walks through the entire contraption as it turns to reach her destination.

Poe’s rabidly funny turn as the lunatic Limbaugh lover is balanced by Amir Arison’s Zamir, the possible enemy combatant who fluctuates between fury and normalcy. David Aaron Baker juggles nutty roles like a bothersome narrator and the spy Loony Tunes with aplomb, and John Pankow is properly sleazy as Preacher Mike. If Kristine Nielsen goes too far in her applause-mongering mugging as Luella, Audrie Neenan’s Hildegard is her exact opposite: her “falling panties” running gag is done so subtly as to approach the comically sublime—how does she drop her drawers on cue again and again?

Laura Benanti has already proved to be a persuasive musical actress-singer: as Felicity, she shows that she’s also an expert comedienne, with hair-trigger timing and an appealing personality that grounds her character even as the world around her is (almost) literally blowing up. Durang and Martin smartly let her sing a little, though not often enough for my taste.

And it’s Benanti’s innate sweetness that allows Durang to pull off his sentimental happy ending—I don’t think any other actress could make us believe in love after we’ve spent two-plus hours witnessing the tortures we put each other through.

originally posted on

No comments: