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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM
at the Public Theater

BEYOND THE LETTER OF THE LAW
By BILL STEVENSON

  Laura Benanti and Amir Arison/PH: Sara Krulwich

There are very few living playwrights who have the guts -let alone the skill -to find humor in a deadly serious subject like the torture of suspected terrorists. With Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Christopher Durang delivers a biting, bracing absurdist comedy with "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a central plot point. Like its title, the satire is too long and rather unwieldy. Nonetheless, it's undeniably audacious and often mordantly funny. The Public Theater has given it a near-perfect production that boasts a sensational cast and an elaborate revolving set.

Felicity (Laura Benanti) is the likable heroine who wonders if Zamir (Amir Arison), the man she impetuously married the same night they met at Hooters, is a terrorist. She takes him to meet her dippy mom Luella (Kristine Nielsen) and scary dad Leonard (Richard Poe). Luella rambles on about the theater: She loves Wicked but can't stand intellectual fare like The Coast of Utopia. (Durang gets in delicious digs at British playwrights, from Tom Stoppard to Brian Friel, whose plays monopolize Broadway theaters.) Leonard is a right-wing nutjob who hates the U.N., the French, and especially Jane Fonda. Felicity is right to wonder whether her dad really keeps a butterfly collection in the room he keeps locked.

It turns out Leonard is part of a shadow government that is prepared to take the law into its own hands when necessary. A fellow member is Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan), codename Scoobydoo, who can't hide her crush on Leonard and can't keep her panties from falling down. Another member (David Aaron Baker) goes by the name Loonytunes because he speaks in the voices of cartoon characters. Finally, there's Reverend Mike (John Pankow), who produces porn when he's not performing marriages.

The play reaches its comedic peaks whenever Nielsen and Poe are onstage. Nielsen has become a Durang regular, previousl y starring in Betty's Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon. Her loopy Luella is one of her most inspired characters yet. Nielsen is hilarious as Luella goes off on tangents about theater or offers a hint at what goes on at night with her husband. "It's private, and it's unspeakable,"she says. Nielsen milks the line for all its worth and then tops it with a priceless look of absolute terror. Poe also earns big laughs as the ultraconservative Leonard, whose love of guns and eagerness to nuke Iran brings to mind Dick Cheney.

Neenan, who resembles a thinner Margaret Thatcher, is a hoot as the clueless Hildegarde, and Baker ably doubles as the nutty Loonytunes and the Voice (the narrator, usually audible only to Felicity). Amidst all the craziness, Benanti (Gypsy) makes Felicity the only sane one in the bunch. And Arison is just right as the sexy/dangerous Zamir. Director Nicholas Martin keeps the zany action moving along, with help from David Korins' terrific set.

Although the first act goes on too long, at least we get to hear Benanti warble a few bars of a Michel Legrand song. The second act is tighter, but the ersatz happy ending feels forced. Unlike the rest of Durang's politically charged satire, the finale is reminiscent of other recent plays and musicals.

Despite some unevenness, Why Torture is Wrong... is one of Durang's zingiest, most astringent comedies to date. With any luck, perhaps New York will be blessed with a revival of his first major success, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.

 


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