Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them

Photo/Joan Marcus

According to John Yoo’s infamous memo, it’s only torture if it causes organ failure. Legally, then, Christopher Durang is off the hook; though he throws everything at the wall in his new play, hoping to fracture a funny bone or two, the audience is likely to survive both acts. Whether they’ll want to is quite another story: Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is his most “duranged” play. Durang is right to assign Looney Tunes nicknames to the torturers in this play, but he grows so absurd that he struggles to make a point. (Our extremism is just as bad as their extremism?) Given how poorly his jokes promote the plot—instead of dealing with terrorism, he pokes fun at theater; instead of dealing with a bad marriage, he waxes poetic on porn—it’s no surprise that Durang eventually jettisons the whole plot, settling on a deus ex Hooters love story instead.

However, the joke’s really only on people who expected something sharper from such a potent title. Those who enjoyed David Mamet’s November will feel right at home here: from the moment Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up in a hotel with Zamir (Amir Arison), telegraphing her shock with a grimace to the audience, things keep going further over the top. It turns out they’re actually married! Zamir, who claims to be Irish, seems more and more like a date-raping terrorist with no patience for the a-word (annulment)! And neither of Felicity’s parents, an arts-loving liberal and a gun-toting conservative, have the slightest attachment to reality!

In the hands of experts like Kristine Nielsen, who plays Felicity’s ditzy, theater-obsessed mother, this is, at worst, hilarious: who knew the face had so many muscles? Other actors, like Richard Poe, who plays Felicity’s opinionated father, can only ham up their lines, trying to project their way out of the one-dimensional box their characters are locked in. The most hastily sketched roles—Voice (David Aaron Baker) and Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan)—aren’t even funny, they’re just embarrassing: at one point, Baker is reduced to speaking in Looney Tune quotes, and Neenan’s panties keep dropping, a desperate plea for laughs. Only John Pankow, who plays the porn-producing Reverend Mike (a “porn-again Christian”), manages the straight-faced grace necessary to get through that mindless minefield.

Though Durang wanders all over the place, he is very well served by director Nicholas Martin’s eye for detail—the “happy” family settled in a breakfast “nook,” enjoying their “Freedom” toast. He also has a miracle of a set, thanks to David Korins; each location is arranged in a circle (of which only one wedge is visible): this not only allows quick transitions but also establishes a much needed sense of place amidst the madness. It does a better job of conveying the theme than the text does, for its surfaces actually hide things, whereas the dialogue only screams them. This is Durang’s usual tact—the father, preparing for torture, says “I hope you understand the seriousness of your situation,” when in fact everything around him undercuts that seriousness, strips it of whatever moral justification the Yoos of this world have given it. It’s just a shame that in this instance, the lack of focus undercuts Durang’s own absurdity.

Hildegard’s panties adequately describe Why Torture Is Wrong: all that stretched-out elastic causes her underwear to keep dropping. When she’s called on it (“They’re down about your ankles like some insane shoe accessory”), she replies, “I’m not doing it on purpose. Just ignore it. You should be looking at my face anyway.” Well, Durang’s not going off on all these riffs on purpose either (which is the problem)—it’s just the manic way he writes. At least the set gives it a pretty face!

No comments: