Theater review: 'Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them' at the Stella Adler Theatre
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has produced its fair share of art, but farce has been one area hitherto neglected. Christopher Durang, operating with his customary lunatic hilarity, bravely steps into the breach.
In “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” Durang accelerates the forces of paranoia, xenophobia and ethnic, religious and class hatreds to produce a fun-house image of where we’re headed if we don’t put on the brakes. This Blank Theatre Company production at the Stella Adler Theatre, directed by Blank founding artistic director Daniel Henning, tries to keep pace with the comically and politically incensed plot, though it’s not easy when the playwright keeps flooring the mayhem.
A fateful one-night stand sets the insanity in motion. Felicity (Rhea Seehorn) wakes up in a motel room next to a stranger. Zamir (Sunil Malhotra), sprawled out in boxers, cheerfully informs her that they tied the knot last night after carousing at Hooters and meeting up with a minister (Nicholas Brendon) who makes porno on the side.
The marriage is frightening for a number of reasons, not least because of Zamir’s menacing temper and penchant for date-rape drugs. Equally scary is Felicity’s right-wing, nut-job father, Leonard (Mike Genovese), who’s part of a shadow government waging a counter-terrorism campaign (Operation New Jersey Freedom) that’s as bumbling as it is bloody.
Leonard has deemed his new son-in-law the enemy, and he’s called in two of his associates, lovesick and incompetent Hildegarde (Catherine Hicks) and the aptly named Looney Tunes (Alec Mapa, who also plays Narrator and Voice -- it's that kind of freewheeling experience) to help him kidnap Zamir. The plan is to subject him to the full battery of John Yoo-approved “enhanced interrogation methods," which, Leonard patriotically explains, means anything short of "organ failure."
Felicity is justifiably concerned that her dad is going too far. She might have married a violent opportunist, but she doesn’t want his fingers cut off. Meanwhile, her mother, Luella, (a deliriously daft Christine Estabrook), is too busy gabbing mindlessly about Broadway to notice that anything’s particularly amiss in her affluent suburban home with the touted breakfast nook and secret upstairs chamber, where Leonard is supposedly tending to his butterfly collection, not torturing would-be mass murderers.
Durang inserts a number of diatribes about crackpot conservatism and the sorry state of theater, both of which fetch big laughs. The problem with the piece is that it’s a little too indulgent, and the production can't always summon the necessary adrenaline over the course of its two acts.
Not that the physical staging obstructs momentum -- Jeff G. Rack’s sets lend themselves to quick rearrangements, and Michael Mullen’s costumes have giddy flair. Yet too often the sense is of a farce being conscientiously served rather than breathlessly dreamed up in an orgy of satiric illogic. Still, the play hits the bull's-eye enough times to make your giggles stick in the back of your throat.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (second floor), Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 14. $22-$28. (323) 661-9827 or www.TheBlank.com Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Photos: Top: Christine Estabrook, Mike Genovese, Sunil Malhotra and Rhea Seehorn. Bottom: Seehorn and Malhotra. Credit: Rick Baumgartner / The Blank Theatre Company