Aug 012013

The Titanic Theatre Company production struggles with Christopher Durang’s superficial satire and manages to squeeze some laughs out of it.

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang. Directed by Adam Zahler. Staged by the Titanic Theatre Company. At the Black Box Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through August 10.

Shelley Brown (Luella), Alex Morgan (Zamir), and Caroline Rose Markham (Felicity) in the Titanic Theatre Company production of "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them." Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Shelley Brown (Luella), Alex Morgan (Zamir), and Caroline Rose Markham (Felicity) in the Titanic Theatre Company production of WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

By Bill Marx.

According to the program notes by Titanic Theatre Company director Adam Zahler, Christopher Durang’s 2011 “mashup of political satire and therapeutic jargon” pokes fun at “. . . us.” But I disagree. This intermittently funny sketch — stretched to the breaking point — is really pointed at “them” . . . the virulent right wingers whose warmongering vision of the world after 9/11 resulted in the horrendous debacle that was (and is) Iraq. First-rate satire is supposed to challenge audiences by making them face, through laughter, uncomfortable truths. Instead, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them shamelessly caters to our self-righteousness. What — us think the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq were good ideas? No way — these mistakes were made by paranoid conservative lunatics. Despite what some critics think, Durang has not written a brave response to 9/11 and its aftermath — this is a smug, aburdist farce that perpetuates an exculpatory lie.

The script’s central idea, a madcap riff on the tawdry I Married an Alien film genre, is promising. A young woman named Felicity wakes up to find that—after a night of drinking at Hooter’s—she has married Zamir, a complete stranger who is without a job, evasive about his background (he claims he is from Ireland), and whose two principal interests appear to be sex and the power that comes from bullying women. Felicity sensibly wants an annulment, but somehow she can’t find a lawyer (?) without consulting her parents, Luella and Leonard, the former an aging Stepford wife frighteningly obsessed with routine, theater, and mass entertainment, the latter a rabid right winger who, when he is not voting Republican and fighting for the rights of the unborn, dreams of torturing and killing our enemies within. Zamir and Leonard take an instant dislike to each other (holding each other at bomb and gun-point), which leads to Leonard calling on his “shadow government” wackos to save the country from a violent subversive.

In terms of significant plot, that is about it: the fantasy notion of the alien-as-terrorist is quickly dropped so that Durang can make easy fun of right-wing extremism. One of Leonard’s helpers is called “Loony Tunes” because the mental case can only gibber in cartoon dialogue. The other inept American avenger is Hildegarde, who has a romantic thing for Leonard and for some reason (cheap, Chinese elastic?) can’t seem to keep her panties up — they keep falling to her ankles. If you find tumbling underwear funny, this is the comedy for you. To me, the panties, “Looney Tunes,” the repetitive rants about guns and torture are a symptom of comic anemia: a joke repeated endlessly is a joke flogged dead. A Tony Award-winning veteran like Durang should be way beyond this kind of rookie mistake. The playwright compounds the error by not only spreading caricature thin but tacking on a sentimental do-over ending (though perhaps it is meant ironically?) so that the audience can walk away with happy thoughts if it chooses. Satire this isn’t . . .

Part of the problem is that Durang is afraid to use comedy to state the truth because it might rile the wrong people. Better to point the finger at the usual suspects than deal with the fact that liberal politicians voted for the war in Iraq, and many people in the theater seats voted for these representatives. As I write, John “He was for it before he was against it” Kerry is the U.S. Secretary of State. He is in Pakistan today talking about American drone attacks inside the country, and the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps only Jonathan Swift would come up with comedy corrosive enough to slice and dice this state of affairs. It is not only Dick Cheney and company who got us into Iraq and condoned torture — the left wing media and intelligentsia bear some of the blame as well. Apparently they do not count as enablers, at least in Durang’s commercialized eyes.

The enablers in the play are generally women, Felicity and Luella, and as usual Durang’s brand of feminism uneasily blends sentimentality and lampoon. Felicity is too helpless to locate a lawyer, to complain about Zamir to the police, or to check out her father’s mysterious “butterfly collection.” Luella is a hapless victim, living in a hysterical world detached from reality. Yet somehow they manage to push the demented men toward intimations of humanity — with the help of a “hip” priest, Reverend Mike, who married Zamir and Felicity and produces porno films on the side. The “go-with-the-flow” Mike serves as the customary punching bag for Durang’s barbs at religion — nothing new or edgy here.

The Titanic Theatre Company production struggles gamely with this superficial material and manages to squeeze some laughs out of it, though after about 90 minutes the chuckles become scarcer and scarcer. I am not sure the most talented comedian in the world could do much with the clueless Hildegarde and her sliding panties. Caroline Rose Markham brings an understandably stunned deadpan to Felicity, while Shelley Brown and Jeff Gill as her addled parents are mildly entertaining until their one-note stridency becomes tiresome. Alexander J. Morgan holds his own amid the chaos as Zamir.

In his note, director Zahler argues that theater artists are not machines, and that we need to understand that there had to be a considerable wait for an “incisive theater response to 9/11” such as Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. Balderdash. There is nothing in Durang’s play that couldn’t have been staged years ago — the similarly flimsy Colbert Report and Daily Show with Jon Stewart programs on TV took far less time to be much more amusingly glib about American madness.


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