Friday, August 9, 2013

Why Christopher Durang is Wrong, and the People Who Love Him

The talented cast of Why Torture is Wrong, etc.

There's a special dismay in realizing your own politics don't make for great theatre - it's a strangely sinking feeling that dogged my experience of Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (through this weekend at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, from the Titanic Theatre Company).  I agree with most everything the playwright preaches in this black-ops comedy - but even as a member of his choir, I still can't kid myself into imagining that the preacher's point of view can serve as the basis of actual drama

Something tells me the playwright had the same feeling, deep down. For Durang deploys all manner of feints, gyrations, and shocks - including a whimsical time-travel schtick worthy of the dreaded Sarah Ruhl - to distract us from the fact that he's stretching a punchy sketch well beyond its natural limits; still, try as he might, he just can't dodge the tedium of a potted political discussion.

And as we sense Durang's inability to actually grapple with his theme, another, deeper kind of dismay sets in. Especially given the odd spotlight the playwright shines on his own art form's irrelevance to the War on Terror (while innocent people are being tormented, Durang wickedly has his characters coo over Wicked, just to underline the political vapidity of Broadway).  Even director Adam Zahler gets in on the act, sniping in his program notes about critics who "in the dark months after 9/11 . . . chastised the theatre community for having no substantive response to those events." Okay - fair enough, Mr. Zahler. But the trouble is that here we are twelve years on, and it seems we're still waiting for that response (certainly Durang hasn't filled the bill).

Not that you'd guess that from the play's rapturous reception in New York. But as I've said before, the girls at the Times aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, and they're just about the best critics the Big Apple can boast. Thus, thanks to Ben Brantley's cluelessness, Why Torture is Wrong, etc. was launched on the regional world, and talented folks like those at the Titanic Theatre Company were tricked into staging it. (To be fair, they're almost good enough to warrant buying a ticket.)

The play does offer some insight into why Durang will always be a second-tier talent.  (I know, he just won a Tony - so have a lot of second-tier talents!)  For here, if ever, was his big chance to conjure some unexpected depth in his work. After all, the sadistic illogic of the War on Terror does map precisely to his personal brand of horror-comedy (put the vile John Yoo in a habit and you've got a kick-ass Sister Mary Ignatius). So it's no surprise that Why Torture Is Wrong opens with what seems a promising premise - an Average Jane named Felicity (Caroline Rose Markham) wakes up after a drunken black-out to discover she's hitched to a sexist, violent ne'er-do-well (Alexander J. Morgan) who calls himself Zamir, claims to be Irish, and keeps sounding off like some long-lost cousin of Osama bin Laden (or maybe the Tsarnaevs, whom the actor slightly resembles). 

What's more, as luck would have it, Felicity's father is a crazed CIA wannabe, a demented member of "our shadow government" who has an itchy finger when it comes to thumbscrews, and who's almost overjoyed to have Zamir in his sights.  Thus Felicity finds herself trapped, like most of civil society, between two thuggish reactionary movements that uncannily mirror each other.

No, we still can't view terrorists rationally.
The trouble is that Durang can't seem to see beyond his characteristic victimology (his passive characters lack agency almost as a rule - in fact Felicity can't even seem to consult a lawyer on her own). Thus, once the playwright has set up dear old Dad as his font of political paranoia, his heroine is off the moral hook - she and Mom (Shelley Brown) can only wring their hands as Zamir loses his fingers. But not only does this flatten the play's moral profile, it's simply inaccurate when it comes to the American public, or even the theatre audience (if you doubt me, just ponder the recent over-reaction to the Rolling Stone cover at left).

What's more, as Durang has locked himself out of a sustaining dramatic conflict, he's left flogging a handful of gags well past the point of any dramatic - or even comic - return. One counterterrorist, for instance, drops her panties over and over again (torture sets her lady parts aquiver, I guess); another actually sounds like Foghorn Leghorn and the Road Runner - because the whole crew is out of Loony Tunes, get it? (Yes, the jokes are tortured along with poor Zamir.)

Still, even as I rolled my eyes at Durang's antics, I was torn by my simultaneous sympathy for the actors of the Titanic Theatre Company.  There's a lot of good work in this show, even if director Zahler lets the action get as heavy-handed as the puns (and fails to conjure a slummy-but-sexy connection between Felicity and Zamir). Jeff Gill is scarily convincing - in a truly commanding performance - as Durang's Dick Cheney wannabe, and Shelley Brown is almost as memorable as his addled fan of Wicked; newcomer Markham likewise impresses with Felicity's intelligence, if not her gumption, and another new face, Jonathan Barron, was hilarious as an itinerant minister/porn producer who throws a curve ball into the plot. Meanwhile Alexander Morgan proved sexy, but not quite convincingly dangerous, as Zamir - and Brett Milanowski almost put over his Road Runner impression, despite everything (it was certainly a valiant try). Only Alisha Jansky slightly disappointed as the Spy Who Couldn't Keep Her Panties On - but honestly, this is a thankless part if ever there was one. There was also some intriguing sound design from David Reiffel (in between scenes, we heard playback of previous conversations, as if the theatre had been bugged), and I liked Marc Harpin's cartoonishly-scrawled set (it mapped to Durang's cartoonish tone) - but the set-ups between scenes did hobble the production's pace (in this case a bad idea); and alas, the costumer didn't quite pick up on Durang's deadly jab at the diversity rainbow in one character's wardrobe.

So there you have my divided call on Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them - production: yes, play: no; thumbs up AND thumbs down.  It's an assessment I know you're getting used to reading on the Hub Review - and one, believe me, I'm getting tired of writing.  But what can I say? Even Christopher Durang is wondering the same thing: Why can't today's playwrights write politically salient plays?

No comments:

Post a Comment