Saturday, July 10, 2010

REVIEW: Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them

Torture. The very word conjures up images of water boarding, sleep deprivation—even having one’s body stretched on the rack—but in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them (isn’t that a nonsequitur?), beautiful young Felicity’s torture consists of waking up after a drunken night of sex to find herself wed to a man who might be a terrorist and being a member of a very weird family where no conversation “ever progresses in a linear way.”

This demented satire is given a madcap, appropriately off-the-wall production by The Theater Project, Union County College’s professional theater company, where it runs through August 1.

When Felicity awakens in a motel room to find herself in bed with a stranger named Zamir—a man with a violent temper who threatens her whenever she talks about annulment or crosses him in any way—she immediately returns to her parents’ home, hoping that they can get her out of this pickle. Unfortunately, neither Luella nor Leonard, a k a mother and father, have much interest in helping their daughter. To deal with her empty life, clueless Luella talks nonstop about the theater; she repeats the same lines over and over ad nauseum, driving Felicity mad. Presumed butterfly collector Leonard—anti-UN, anti-the French and a fan of “enhanced rendition”—is part of a U.S. shadow government planning a coup, complete with code names, secret meetings and an arsenal of assault rifles. When Leonard “captures” Zamir and proceeds to torture him to get information, Felicity finds herself on her husband’s side; even if she doesn’t love him, she can’t stand by and watch him being tortured. She has to do something.

No plot summary can do justice to a Durang play; one has to experience the onstage mayhem to get a handle on the playwright’s targets. This production couldn’t have come at a better time, what with the very recent Russian spy caper and the arrest of three Al Queda jihadists in, of all places, Norway! The vociferous defense of water boarding mounted by former VP Dick Cheney and various right wing wingnuts makes Torture the right play for the right time.

Director Mark Spina keeps this wackiness purring along at a good clip, which is good given the numerous scene changes. He’s assembled a terrific cast too. Meghan Murray is appropriately outraged as the lovely Felicity; her exasperation at all points in the action is palpable. As Luella, the fabulous Harriett Trangucci has the uncanny ability to utter the most ridiculous dialogue with a straight face; her wide eyes and slightly manic smile telegraph the woman’s cluelessness (“Normal is a conundrum for me,” she says) and Durang’s poking satiric fun at citizens who hide their heads in the sand from any form of turmoil, personal or political. Gary Glor’s off-the-wall Leonard matches her performance, as he interacts with his two compatriots, Scooby-doo and Mr. Loony Tunes, spouts conspiracy theories as though they are true (albeit with a demented look in his eyes) and tortures Zamir to get information about a coming attack.

Phil E. Eichinger as Zamir is more scary than hilarious, at least until we learn the truth about his background. He bounces from pseudo-charming to violent in the blink of an eye (“I’m the husband, Shut up,” he tells Felicity), and his accent is totally believable. Noreen Farley’s goofy Hildegarde (Scooby-doo) will have you holding your sides as she struggles with a pair of wandering underpants and tries to keep her affections for Leonard under control. “This cloak-and-dagger stuff makes me giddy,” she says. The cast is rounded out by a very good David C. Neal as the pornographer-minister who performed Felicity and Zamir’s marriage ceremony and the multi-talented Kevin Melendez as The Voice, a waiter, Mr. Loony Tunes (complete with an Elmer Fudd-like delivery) and a lounge singer.

Fine production values are provided by Victoria Depew’s costumes (get a load of the suit worn by Zamir and the wrap dresses Luella dons—the same style in various colors to match her mood), Mark Reilly’s lighting design, Mike Magnifico’s sound and Tom Rowe’s interesting set that uses fold-out mini-sets to extend the playing space with very little fuss and backdrops projected on the back wall of the stage to suggest various venues.

Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them takes as its subject the propensity for violence that seems to be coded in the masculine psyche—jihadist or American “patriot.” Neither American nor Arabic men are spared criticism of their treatment of women or brutal methods of persuasion.

Durang’s genius lies in letting us laugh cathartically at the absurdity of his characters’ behavior, enabling us to shed the anger, fear and helpless indignation we feel when reading or watching the world news. Catharsis. It’s what classical Greek dramatists strove for. Congratulations to Christopher Durang for achieving that high end in this play, and thank you to The Theater Project for allowing us to participate in the experience.

Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them will be performed in the Roy Smith Theater at the Cranford campus of Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue. Performance times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday matinees at 3 PM. Tickets range from $10–25 and can be reserved by contacting Brown Paper Tickets either online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/115853 or by telephone at 800.838.3006. Information is also available at http://www.thetheaterproject.org/.