Featuring violence that is too silly to be disturbing, buffoonish characters and a surreal visit to Hooter’s, Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them rails against the conservative right—but the playwright’s satirical punches have little weight and the blows he lands are glancing at best.
Torture, its Philadelphia premiere being presented by the New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre, focuses on Felicity (Ginger Dayle). A woman of indeterminate age (a trait she shares with everyone else in Durang’s tale), Felicity awakens from a night of what we can only assume was near-death intoxication to a strange man named Zamir (Sam Henderson). Unable to recall any events from her night of carousing, Zamir informs her that they spent the night having sex. And since Felicity isn’t the sort of girl who sleeps around, before lovemaking they got married by a minister who moonlights as a director of pornographic films (Russ Widdall). Felicity insists they have the marriage annulled. Zamir proposes instead that he beat the crap out of her. Soon the newlyweds are off to meet Felicity’s parents, and from here the story gets even more bizarre.
Despite her drinking habits and poor judgment, Felicity, it turns out, is by far the most stable member of her family. Her father, Leonard (Paul L. Nolan), is a gun-toting, Fox News-loving Republican commando who has vowed to fight his own personal war on terror using any means necessary, including the “enhanced interrogation” methods famously championed by defenders of the Patriot Act. By contrast, her mother, Luella (Marcia Saunders), is a subservient housekeeper who obeys her husband and loathes her existence. Obsessed with theater, she views the world with a mixture of terror and confusion, which isn’t surprising considering her husband is a lunatic who enjoys incinerating squirrels before breakfast. “I don’t really know what normal is” she confides to Felicity. “That’s why I go to the theater, to discover it,” she explains. (Strangely enough, her favorite show is Wicked .)
Durang has never emphasized character development in his work, and in Torture the people we see are more caricatures than characters. Nolan and Saunders stand out; their animated performances complement the script’s cartoonish qualities admirably. Unfortunately, Henderson’s Zamir is not as effectively realized, though to be fair it’s tough to play a character whose chief characteristic is a lack of a discernible identity. Widdall is more successful, and his engaging performance as the “porn-again” pastor is reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s eccentric journalist in Apocalypse Now .
New City favors plays that explore the darker aspects of life. Its early winter productions have often provided a welcome dose of reality during the otherwise relentlessly joyous holiday theater season. But by the end of Torture ’s painfully unfunny first act, you may find yourself yearning to see Tiny Tim hobble across the stage. Under Michael Brophy’s direction, the audaciously theatrical second act is a slight improvement, which is not to suggest that Torture needs two acts (the play is simply far too long). Durang’s full-length works have a tendency to stretch a single, often intriguing idea to the point where we eventually lose interest.
Torture is neither funny enough to be a successful comedy or dark enough to work as a provocative satire. In the end, it unintentionally succeeds in making the dire consequences associated with the paranoid-driven patriotism espoused by some conservatives (including several running for the Republican presidential nomination) seem more like a bad joke rather than a real threat to our civil liberties.
Through Jan. 8. $22-$24. Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. newstagecity.org
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PW's Holiday Guide 2014