Why Torture is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2009
Felicity seems like a perfectly nice, normal young woman. But she's got an unusual problem. She's gotten married (while she was drunk, or maybe after somebody slipped her a date-rape pill) to a man named Zamir, and she's very uncertain about him. But let me have her tell you herself:
I have a funny feeling about him. I'm afraid he might be a terrorist. Or maybe he's in the Mafia. Or maybe he's bipolar. Or maybe he's a serial killer. Or maybe he's just a drug addict and alcoholic and out of prison on parole.
Zamir's overly macho attitude and closed-mouthed-ness about how he makes a living (and his eagerness to see if he can mooch off Felicity or, better yet, her parents) doesn't help matters any. Felicity's mostly clueless Mom, Luella, doesn't have much to offer in the way of counsel, and her ultra-right-wing father Leonard (who Durang describes in the character list of his script as "100% sure he's right about everything") reacts by threatening to kill Zamir and later having Zamir followed by a confederate in a secret "shadow government" that he's part of to find out about Zamir's as yet unproven terrorist activities.
I don't want to give too much more away about Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, except to say that I think this is Christopher Durang's finest play—funny, satiric, smart, completely on-target, and startlingly hopeful; the last two attributes combine to make this very much a work of theatre for this particular historical moment. The production, helmed by Nicholas Martin for The Public Theater, features a splendid cast of actors at the top of their form, and a brilliant set design by David Korins that Martin utilizes to stunning effect.
Torture is gag-laden but deliciously purposeful, which is why I liked it so much. Durang gives us, in Leonard, a scary paranoid Dick Cheney-like America-First conservative to make fun of, but the character serves also as a way into an exploration of how we got to this place in our collective culture. (Richard Poe enacts this ridiculous bully with magnificent precision.)
Durang has also created here, for his frequent collaborator Kristine Nielsen, a perfectly foolish suburban-mom archetype in Luella, a woman who each time we catch first sight of her in the living room is improbably just putting the finishing touches on an arrangement of flowers. Nielsen paints her in the broad strokes we expect and then supplies all of this remarkable detail to fill out the portrait of a woman who finally feels not only three-dimensional but completely organic. She's the counterbalance to the War on Terror theme exemplified by Leonard; there's a running joke in the play that has Luella constantly making non-sequitur references to famous plays and musicals that pays off near the climax of the show when, quoting from Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, she says, "Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon." Wistfully, she adds, "Only I'm afraid that's not true anymore..." Durang's conclusion to this comedy of errors happily suggests otherwise.
If Nielsen and Poe come close to stealing the play, the rest of the cast more than hold their own. Laura Benanti gets to create a terrific character in Felicity and her performance is delightful, anchoring the piece beautifully. Amir Arison plays the wildly unsympathetic Zamir in a most sympathetic way. Audrie Neenan has many funny moments as Hildegarde, Leonard's partner-in-shadow-government, while John Pankow is likably oily as Reverend Mike, the preacher who married Zamir and Felicity (who is also a part-time porn movie impresario). David Aaron Baker plays several roles, including most impressively a colleague of Leonard's code-named Loony Tune who seems to speak only in Warner Brothers cartoon character voices.
All of the elements in this production work together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but it's essential that I take special note of Gabriel Berry's witty costume design, which supports one of the play's funniest gags. Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is a grand addition to an already exciting spring season in NYC theatre. There's much to ponder and much to enjoy here, and I urge you to hear and engage with Durang's surprising comedy soon.