Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them @ Public Theater, New York

cast list
Amir Arison, David Aaron Baker, Laura Benanti, Audrie Neenan, Kristine Nielsen, John Pankow, Richard Poe

directed by
Nicholas Martin
Disregard the cumbersome name. In his new play, prodigiously titled Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, playwright Christopher Durang envisions a strange, funny, and totally spot-on vision of the current state of things in the world.

At turns absolutely engrossing and frustratingly baffling, the achievement of the play is its ability to maintain its laugh-a-minute tone on one hand while simultaneously burrowing under the audience’s skin.

The situations in Durang’s play all involve ordinary situations gone bafflingly wrong. Our heroine, aptly named Felicity, awakes one morning in a hotel bed lying next to a stranger she’s haphazardly married the night before whilst in a drunken stupor.
His name is Zamir, and, though he appears to be Middle Eastern, he claims to be Irish (in one of the play’s running gags). Though Felicity, who suspects her new husband may be a terrorist, would prefer an annulment, Zamir reminds her that he’s easily agitated.

Soon enough, Zamir meets Felicity’s zany parents, Luella and Leonard. Luella is a cutesy, theatre-loving woman with a blond flip do who buys the same dress in multiple colors to suit her moods. And Leonard is a mysterious gun-toting man who places Jane Fonda, politically, alongside Hitler and Stalin and whose butterfly collection just might be a euphemism for something more sinister.

Much of the rest of the play hinges on twists and turns of the plot that it’d be a shame to reveal, but be assured that Torture, directed at a snappy pace by Nicholas Martin and punctuated by a punchy score from Mark Bennett, is constantly surprising, astute, and thought-provoking. Though the final section of the play – which takes a daring metatheatrical turn – ultimately befuddles more than it satisfies, Durang’s humor alone is enough to captivate.

On the design front, sets by David Korins allow for quick transitions between places. As rooms rotate in and out of focus, constantly making way for new locations, it soon becomes apparent that Korins’s masterful turntable concept is as absurd as Durang’s play; there’s simply not enough room to fit all of the sets the play calls for in the space of one rotating circle.

Laura Benanti, in one of her first prominent non-singing theatrical roles, is absolutely winning as Felicity. The comic skills that she’s obviously honed playing musical comedy work to her advantage in this madcap role that requires emotional commitment as much as it requires a sense of humor.

The rest of the cast is on the same page, each actor and actress delivering a distinctive performance (including a winning comic turn from Audrie Neenan as a shadow government operative who can’t seem to keep her panties up by her waist).

Kristine Nielsen, however, stands out from the pack as the deftest of them all. Her gift for physical comedy seems entirely natural. In an arch of her brow or a tilt of the head, she can elicit uproarious audience response. And her character Luella’s discussions with her daughter Felicity about her theatre habits is particularly amusing to the sort of “in” crowd this play is likely to attract.

As stated above, much of the potency play stems from its absurd take on ordinary ideas, both domestic and political. At one point, Felicity, utterly confused by her surroundings, exclaims, “This is not normal behavior.” Her father Leonard replies, “These are not normal times.”

This seems to be Durang’s point. Have we gone overboard in our post-9/11 world, labeling French toast “freedom toast,” obsessing over the Terri Schiavo case? And though he seems to steer away from his main agenda as the play nears its disappointing close, Why Torture is Wrong is nevertheless an engaging, thought-provoking, and well-acted piece of work, a must-see for those in need, simultaneously, of belly laughs and food for thought.

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