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A CurtainUp Review
Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

Are you saying we got married last night? —Felicity
Yeah. In between all the vomiting. You said you never put out unless you got married first. And I thought you were joking, but I decided to call your bluff. And we got married. See. . . —Zamir as he shows her a ring on his finger.
Why Torture is Wrong
Kristine Nielsen, & Laura Benanti
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What more infelicitous a moment could it be for Felicity (Laura Benanti) than to wake up in a hotel room with no memory of how she got there? More distressing is that she finds a man lying in the bed next to her.

Upon awakening, the good-looking, swarthy man tells her his name is Zamir (Amir Arison) and that they met at Hooters the previous night, got drunk together and then married by a minister who also directs porno films. She also thinks that she may have been given a date rape pill by this man whose behavior she quickly assesses correctly as "bi-polar." Zamir insists it is because he is "Irish" and warns Felicity that he can get violent. She is left with only one conclusion. He must be a terrorist.

What is the beautiful young woman in a state of semi-shock to do when this husband won't consider an annulment? The best thing she can come up with is to take him home to meet her folks in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her mother Luella (Kristine Neilsen) is a flaky ditz (are we surprised?) whose conversations have no linear direction but are composed entirely of digressive references to Hollywood films and Broadway musicals, or as Felicity explains it, "free association in an altered reality." Her father Leonard (Richard Poe) is a neo-con racist bigot and a pro-active member of a "shadow government" that's planning to rescue the country from the liberals.

Claiming to be a butterfly collector, Leonard, in reality (to use the term loosely) has a collection of weaponry which is stock-piled in the attic and where Luella and Felicity are forbidden to go. "Do you want him killed," " he asks Felicity, as he points a gun at Zamir's head. In response Zamir flips out his cell-phone which he says is programmed to send a signal to have them all blown up.

As the "Theater of the Absurd" is having a renewal on Broadway with revivals by the kings of the genre Eugene Ionesco (Exit the King) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), we are reminded that Christopher Durang may well be the one playwright to have picked up their mantle. If WhyTorture is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them, probably isn't destined to rank among the aforementioned plays, it, nevertheless, serves as a validation of Durang as a uniquely perverse, as well as an eminently endearing, observer of life. His plays have taken aim at religion (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It all for You), a dysfunctional family (The Marriage of Bette and Boo), political insanity (Miss Witherspoon) and even old B movies (Adrift in Macao).

If there is one quality that distinguishes Durang's comically barbed diatribes against society, it comes from a kind of guileless sophistication that is almost child-like. Unlike other playwrights who traverse into surreal satire or farce, Durang has a strong sentimental streak. His rage is as sweetly and irrepressibly exposed as is his effusive affection for his most aberrant and abhorrent characters. It is clear from the outset that director Nicholas Martin, who helmed Durang's daffiest farce, Betty's Summer Vacation, knows how to keep a tight rein on the crazy mix of mayhem and menace that fuels this play.

Although Durang has written some side-splitting funny dialogue, Why Torture. . . unfortunately runs out of steam when it abruptly surrenders its courageous virulence to an overly sappy anti-climactic ending. But, all that comes before is choice.

The cast appears deliriously driven by Durang's deranged plot. If musical theatre has been the primary genre for Tony Award-winner Benanti (the title role in Gypsy), she more than holds her own in the company of some expert scene-stealers. Although we have seen Nielsen deliver some extraordinary performances in more normal dramatic environments (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), there is no need to remind you that she is really at home as a sublime exponent and inhabitant of Durang's deranged world (Miss Witherspoon, Betty's Summer Vacation) Mostly off-the-wall, over-the-top, and out-of-this-world, Nielsen only needs to affect a glazed-over look to bring laughter as Luella, who owns the same dress in 10 different colors to compliment her mood.

Arison is terrific as Zamir, who, despite his character's indeterminate ethnicity and determinedly schizophrenic behavior, finds a way to make himself endearing. Poe is funny indeed as the demonstrably right wing crackpot who not only relishes but resorts to "enhanced interrogation" in order to get information from Zamir. There are some other roles that support the idea that loonies are running amok in the world. The always fine John Panko as the entrepreneurial Reverend Mike gets the response he deserves with the line, "I'm a porn-again Christian."

Audrie Neenan knows how to work her one-gimmick character to perfection as Leonard's right-wing associate who can't seem to keep her panties from falling to her ankles. David Aaron Baker doubles as a voice, a maitre d' and as a nut-case of a spy who talks like various characters in Loony Tunes cartoons, most hilariously imitating the hyper-active Road Runner.

The set designer David Korins has made wonderful use of a turntable on which various locations —from the hotel room, to different rooms in the Maplewood home, the bar at Hooters to the torture chamber —are as dizzyingly deployed as the characters in them.

Why Torture is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin

Cast: Amir Arison (Zamir), David Aaron Baker (Voice), Laura Benanti (Felicity), Audrie Neenan (Hildegarde), Kristine Nielsen (Lucilla), John Panko (Reverend Mike), Richard Poe (Lenoard)
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Composer: Mark Bennett
Sound Design: Drew Levy
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.
Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street
(212) 967 7555
Tickets: $60 - $70, rush tickets sold one hour before performance are $20 Performances: Tuesday at 7 P:, Wednesdays thru Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM.
Opened 04/7/09
Closing 5/03/09 (a one-week extension)
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/04/09
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