Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them: Comedy. By Christopher Durang. Directed by Claire Rice. Through Feb. 10. Custom Made Theatre, Gough Street Playhouse, 1622 Gough St., S.F. Two hours, five minutes. $25-$30. (415) 798-2682. www.custommade.org.
The comedy and theatrical invention in “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” are as zany and pointed as you’d expect from Christopher Durang. This is, after all, the wicked wit that’s given us “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “Beyond Therapy,” “Betty’s Summer Vacation” and, now nearing the end of an extended New York run, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
But it’s the up-to-date topicality of the 2009 play that may surprise those who see the Custom Made Theatre regional premiere at Gough Street Playhouse, where it opened Tuesday. Durang wrote the play as a savage satire on war-on-terror xenophobia and leaders who go to war based on “faulty” or rigged intelligence, as well as plain old male chauvinism - all problems still very much with us. But much of the comedy is as immediate as today’s debates about gun control, pre-emptive drone strikes and (courtesy of “Zero Dark Thirty”) “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Most of the topical barbs - references to UC Berkeley law Professor John Yoo’s torture justifications, an edgy (pre-Colorado cinema disaster) gag about spraying the audience with gunfire - hit their targets well in the Custom Made staging, as does the overall political satire. Director Claire Rice and her uneven cast and designers don’t mine many of the finer points of the comedy and its characters, but some of those problems may get ironed out during the run.
The politics of “Torture” are neatly folded into a rom-com, or its theater of the absurd equivalent. Felicity (an engaging Eden Neuendorf) wakes up in a motel to discover that the stranger in bed with her is her new husband, whom she married when she was drunk or drugged the night before. Zamir, who claims to be Irish, is controlling, evasive about everything from his heritage to his semi-legal means of support and prone to violence (“My male ego is fragile”). As played by Sal Mattos, he’s also a fairly irresistible blend of obnoxious macho entitlement and sexy, charming possibilities.
Not knowing whether he’s merely a lout, a criminal or a possible terrorist, Felicity wants out. Her parents are little help. Luella, her mom (a genially ditzy Jennie Brick), can’t focus on reality. She’s a theater buff, giving Durang plenty of openings for comic barbs about every musical from “A Chorus Line” to “Wicked” and the complete works of Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, Martin McDonough and Alan Ayckbourn.
Felicity’s father, Leonard (Paul Stout), offers the wrong help. A seemingly harmless butterfly collector, he’s an extreme right-winger (“Did you say something positive about the United Nations?”) with a hair-trigger temper, firearms at the ready and a secret life in a wannabe “shadow government.” As Leonard pursues the terrorist suspect Zamir with the inept help of his smitten, underwear-challenged agent Hildegarde (Teri Whipple), the Rev. Mike (Jonathon Brooks) - a porno filmmaker and part-time minister - and the narrator, Voice (Christopher P. Kelly), get drawn into a plot spinning outrageously out of control.
Not to worry. Durang knows when to rein in the mayhem, using his urbane narrator to help Felicity achieve a felicitous, hopeful ending. The comedy would be sharper and the story more engaging if all the actors could fill out their roles as well as Mattos, Neuendorf and Brooks do, though each of the others has some good moments. It would help even more if Rice used her scenic limitations more effectively, but the breakneck pacing that obscured many comic twists and punch lines on opening night should sort itself out as the actors adjust to their roles. Even with the production’s shortcomings, Durang’s provocative comedy offers considerable rewards.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Why-Torture-Is-Wrong-review-4200017.php#ixzz2JzDJdw00
by: Chad Jones
Critics have called playwright Christopher Durang our “poet laureate of the absurd,” which helps explain a title like “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.”
Durang’s 2009 play, written for and premiered at New York’s Public Theater, is a zany comedy about a woman named Felicity who, in a drunken state, marries a man who may or may not be a terrorist. So what would any girl in such a situation do? She takes the new husband home to meet her parents: a mom obsessed with the theater and a dad whose butterfly collection may be a front for his involvement in a shadow government.
The play receives its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Custom Made Theatre in a production helmed by Claire Rice who, like many students of theater, was exposed to Durang in high school and college before moving on to other writers.
“When you first encounter Durang, it’s like a revelation,” Rice says on the phone from the San Francisco home she shares with her actor husband. “Durang says things you’ve never thought of in ways you could never think of. His humor is so biting. There are no sacred cows. As you leave college, you tend to leave Durang behind. Now that I’ve come back to him, I can’t believe how fresh and alive his writing is.”
Durang is best known for his comedies “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” but recent years have seen a flurry of activity from the playwright, including his nightclub act Chris Durang and Dawne and his current New York hit “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Lincoln Center Theater. Since 1994, he has co-chaired the playwriting program with Marsha Norman at the Juilliard School.
With “Torture,” it seems Durang is less interested in terrorism than he is in vilifying the American obsession with escapism.
“There’s a lot of anger in this play,” Rice says. “Durang says escapism is OK and should be allowed, but why are we escaping into these horrible things like torture dramas? Why can’t we escape back into Fred Astaire? Durang lambastes the media and its escapist tactics, harangues them, shames them out. He angrily shakes his fist at them and demands you do, too.”
For the father, who wants to torture his new son-in-law, the escape is Fox News. For the mother, it’s the theater. For a minister, it’s religion and pornography. For the new husband, it’s a lie of the self. “He’s a violent and mean person,” Rice says, “but that’s all a cover for this other person you don’t meet until the end of the play.”
Felicity doesn’t have a specific escape because she’s disconnected.
“Felicity has gotten herself into trouble and must extricate herself,” Rice says. “She’s never had to really make a decision in her life. She’s an apathetic character in her mid- to late 20s, and she’s making her way through this absurd situation, bouncing from person to person looking for a way out of her life until she takes control of the play.”
When Felicity takes control, she really takes control: She rewinds the play and changes it into a better story line, something she can agree with.
“It’s really kind of amazing,” Rice says, “and it’s one of those moments when the audience may or may not be with us. That’s when I hope the joy of watching these wonderful actors and Durang’s comedy keeps them going. I wouldn’t mind if they left the theater saying, ‘I’m not sure what just happened, but I had a good time.’ “
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Feb. 10. (Previews Friday- Sunday; opens next Thursday. Check website for full schedule.) $15-$30. Custom Made Theatre at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1622 Gough St., S.F. (415) 798-2682. www.custommade.org.
via: SF Gate