April 8, 2009

"Why Torture is Wrong" is Kind of Right Too

Nicholas Martin, the director of the new Christopher Durang play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (and no, there are no typos in the title), was sitting in a wheel chair outside the Public Theater the night my buddy Bill and I saw the play. Martin, who is also the director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is recovering from a stroke and people were literally lining up to greet him and wish him well. (Click here to read an interview with Martin.)

John Guare, whose new play was postponed this season when the Public ran out of money, had already chatted with Martin but he returned, guiding a young man by the elbow. “I want you to meet John Gallagher,” he told Martin, as the director and the Tony-winning star shook hands. A few other recognizable faces drifted by, waved or stopped for a quick hello. It all put me in a good mood before I even got inside.

It also reminded me of the old times in the Village that I’ve read about when everyone in the downtown theater world hung out together at places like Joe Cino’s café and put on outrageous shows for one another. It seemed that way once the show began too. For Why Torture is Wrong would fit comfortably on the bill of the often campy theatricals that were the feature attractions at Café Cino.

It tells the zany story of a woman who wakes up from a night on the town to find that she’s married to a guy with an Arab-sounding name and a quick temper. She thinks he may be a terrorist and wants to annul the marriage but just the word sets him off. Her parents also have suspicions about their new son-in-law and her dad, a right-wing nutcase who has his own secrets, thinks he knows how to find out the truth.

As ridiculous as it may seem, the previous graf is eons more sane than the show actually is. It has a mysterious narrator and a lady spy, lots of meta-references to shows like Wicked and The Coast of Utopia and self-conscious wordplay (“a porn-again Christian”). And, of course, there is the eponymous torture. A lot of this comes off as silly but not quite as funny as it should. Still Durang gets credit in my book for at least trying to deal with the politics of the day. (Click here to read an interview with Durang).

And the cast gets credit for going at the show with real gusto. Laura Benanti, fresh off her Tony-winning performance in Gypsy, is a little out of her comfort zone as the reluctant bride but also gets points for trying something new. Richard Poe as the dad and Audrie Neenan as his Agent 99 are delightfully loony. And Kristine Nielsen, a longtime Durang favorite, is so divinely daffy that all she has to do is arch an eyebrow to set the audience off. She does a lot more than that, though, and almost walks away with the play.

The other scene-stealer is the scenery. David Korins has created a merry-go-round set that, aided by Ben Stanton’s lighting and composer Mark Bennett’s jaunty music, is funny in its own right. This isn’t a show for everyone. But the ones it’s aimed at will have a jolly time.

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