Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them


By Christopher Durang. Directed by Nicholas Martin. The Public Theater. (CLOSED)

Critics love or at least appreciate Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, mostly for its zany humor. In the play, Laura Benanti plays Felicity, who wakes up to discover she's married to someone who may be a terrorist and then brings him home to meet her family. Complaints from the critics range from an unsatisfying ending to the feeling that the level of humor and insight waned as the evening wore on, though The Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli thought the second act much improved on the first. Critics rave about both David Korin's revolving set, described by The New York Times's Ben Brantley as a "whirligig fun house," and frequent Durang interpreter Kristine Nielson as Felicity's theater-loving mother Luella (except for Bloomberg News's John Simon, who thought she was the biggest problem with the show due to her constant mugging). A+
(Martin Denton) I don't want to give too much more away about Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, except to say that I think this is Christopher Durang's finest play—funny, satiric, smart, completely on-target, and startlingly hopeful; the last two attributes combine to make this very much a work of theatre for this particular historical moment. The production, helmed by Nicholas Martin for The Public Theater, features a splendid cast of actors at the top of their form, and a brilliant set design by David Korins that Martin utilizes to stunning effect. Torture is gag-laden but deliciously purposeful, which is why I liked it so much. Durang gives us, in Leonard, a scary paranoid Dick Cheney-like America-First conservative to make fun of, but the character serves also as a way into an exploration of how we got to this place in our collective culture. (Richard Poe enacts this ridiculous bully with magnificent precision.)

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Mr. Durang’s work (henceforth to be referred to as “Torture,” though watching it is not) is the latest offering in a trifecta of aggressively dark comedies that have opened in recent weeks, shows that draw gasping laughs from grim topics. Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” considers the loneliness in the everyman-for-himself savagery that lurks beneath civilized relationships, while the Broadway revival of Eugène Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is about people’s refusal to face their own deaths. "Torture,” though, moves beyond brooding abstractions to the specifics of its title activity — with graphic onstage demonstrations — and of the idea of trigger-happiness as a conditioned reflex in masculine culture. Given recent accounts of prisoners tortured in the C.I.A. detention program and the mass killing by a gunman at an immigration services center in Binghamton, N.Y., you might think no sensible theatergoer would want to attend a play in which a young man is tied to a chair to be beaten bloody and a leading character points a rifle at the audience, musing on spraying it with bullets. Yet “Torture,” directed with just the right balance of crudeness and finesse by Nicholas Martin, turns such scenes into occasions for one of the most releasing forms of laughter: the kind that encourages the spewing of the anger, fear and helpless indignation that build up in anyone who still reads or watches serious world news.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) Is there a living playwright more willing to take on the big-picture questions with such unwavering trust in the power of the truly silly? "Torture," which opened last night at the Public Theater under Nicholas Martin's expertly breezy direction, may not be on the exalted level of Durang's 1985 family masterwork, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo." But the play is prime territory in his explorations of the free-association cartoons and genuine darkness under the veneer of civility.

Theatermania A
(Sandy MacDonald) Trust Christopher Durang to ferret out any laughs lurking in the "War on Terror." Better yet, trust him to expose the human toll at the heart of it and to make us really register the impact of the brutal interrogations being conducted out of sight but in our name. The first act of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People who Love Them, now debuting at the Public Theater under Nicholas Martin's fizzy direction, is all fun and games and gags. However, once an actual ball gag appears, along with other implements of "enhanced" persuasion, it's harder to remain lighthearted. Still, Durang and company still manage somehow to wrest humor from horror.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) At times, Nielsen has been criticized by many -- well, for example, by myself -- for relying too heavily on a certain set of mannerisms. However, in the right role, she's a superb clown, and, in recent years, she has emerged as the leading interpreter of Durang's saber-toothed satires. Here, their alliance is at some sort of apex; Nielsen's Luella slays with nearly every line, her bobbled-headed, eye-popping, puppet-like movements juxtaposed with a breathless delivery that gives each sentence a turbocharged rush of satisfaction or sorrow. When, late in the action, Luella gives vent to her rage, revealing her inner desperate housewife, the result is even funnier... If Why Torture is Wrong... reveals Durang in fine, dyspeptic fettle, it also provides Nielsen with her best showcase in one of his plays. They're a formidable team, a two-person War on Cant. They've got my vote.

(David Cote) If the grammar of Durang's title doesn't quite scan and brings to mind Stephen Colbert's book "I Am America And So Can You," that seems to be the plan. Like Colbert, Durang is an expert at getting inside the minds of fanatics for laughs. And much as I enjoy "The Colbert Report," it's nice to see New York theater getting in on the topical fun.

Bloomberg News A-
(John Simon) Happy news from Christopher Durang, whose “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” at New York’s Public Theater is his funniest play in years. Along with other good things, it establishes Laura Benanti, already known in musicals (“Gypsy”), as an absolute star with this nonsinging role... As Felicity, Benanti offers more than a star turn; I’d call it a constellation. This lovely, quicksilver actress, hilarious one moment, heart-tugging the next, exhibits entrancing facial play, eloquent body language, razor-sharp timing, and a persona eliciting our unstinting complicity.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Durang, after a disappointing decade, is actually roaring back to life. "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" is his finest work since 1999's "Betty's Summer Vacation," offering a surrealistically comic, deceivingly subversive take on the post-9/11 mind-set -- particularly the way Americans seek refuge in fantasy... Leonard and his Shadow Government buddies are as cartoonishly cut off from reality as Luella. It's in that role that Nielsen -- part housewife, part bobblehead doll -- gets the biggest laughs. Sure, we've seen her play variations of Luella before (in Durang's "Miss Witherspoon," for one), but she finds genuine pathos in a woman befuddled by an incomprehensible world. don't really know what normal is," Luella confesses. "That's one of the reasons I go to the theater. To learn that." That line is vividly illustrated in the finale, in which Felicity, after spending the play claiming to hate the theater, (re)creates her own life in a tribute to Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" set at a bizarro-world Hooters. We all try to define normality, Durang seems to be saying, so it might as well be found in a musical.

AmericanTheaterWeb A-
(Andy Propst) It's a setup for loopy fun and Durang uses it as a springboard to comically comment not only on post-9/11 shadow government tactics, but also far-flung topics like the state of theater in New York: Felicity's mom Luella (Kristine Nielsen) is forever pestering her daughter about what shows her daughter has seen while spiraling into reveries about her friends' and her own theatergoing experiences. Under the expertly breezy direction of Nicholas Martin, Durang's play whirls (literally thanks to David Korins' ingeniously conceived series of realistic sets) to the point of bordering on chaos, but never to the point of being abjectly out-of-control. Benanti, known primarily for her work in Broadway musicals, grounds the piece beautifully as the sweet, yet somehow strong-willed, Felicity. As her hastily chosen husband, Arison navigates the line between comic menace and downright creepiness with aplomb.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Durang's writing always displays revue-sketch temptations, making his less-centered plays tricky to unify. Nicholas Martin, a director with a wonderful knack for humanizing brittle comedy, has managed elegantly to keep this one from cracking apart. He gets beautiful, vulnerably sincere work from Benanti, modulates Nielsen's showy outrageousness into unmannered freshness, and elicits strong, funny supporting performances from Arison, a newcomer, as well as Baker, Neenan, Pankow, and Poe. He even squeezes sight gags from the revolving of David Korins's set. In blunter hands, Durang's disturbing comic sense would probably still come through, but the healing touch that glides us past its hesitations wouldn't be there, leaving its nervous distress naked and painful.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Like David Korins' glamorous multiroomed revolving set, director Nicholas Martin's production spins merrily along. Though sending up torture is too late and obvious to make for anything but gummy satire, the play is filled with laughs. Audrie Neenan, who plays a spy with a chronic wardrobe malfunction, and the googly-eyed Nielsen are both screams — in a good way.

Back Stage B+
(Adam R. Perlman) As satire, Torture is neither deep nor devastating. Of recent works, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (whose author, Martin McDonagh, is name-checked in one of Luella's rants) found a scarier, funnier take on the cycle of violence. But Durang makes a virtue of his scattershot brand of comedy. The antidote to narrow-mindedness is a retort that isn't so sure of itself. Oh, Durang's sure the world is maddeningly, dangerously absurd, but he doesn't know what we can do about it. Hence, he gives us a play that doubles back on itself, searching for a way to head off catastrophe and climaxing with a bizarre yet charming fantasy sequence at a version of Hooters you've never seen before. (The wonderful comic actor Brooks Ashmanskas is billed as Hooters consultant.)... If Durang's absurdism -- more South Park than Ionesco—hasn't previously been to your taste, this play isn't likely to convert you. But I found that about two-thirds of its jokes hit the mark. Given Durang's joke density, that's a lot of laughter.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) The problem with all this comedic insanity is that it is difficult to sustain, and there are a few lulls in the production — this despite the heroic efforts of a game cast and the ever-inventive direction of Nicholas Martin. Not to mention the scenic designs of David Korins who literally keeps the various sets spinning. Yet it's amazing how the actors and playwright can punch things back up after the air begins to seep out of the convoluted story. Chief among the expert performers is Kristine Nielsen, an actress of giddy comic timing, both verbal and physical. As Felicity's loopy mother, Nielsen plays a woman who loves the theater — she adores "Wicked" — much more than the reality around her. And her devotion gives Durang the opportunity to tweak such theater icons as Tom Stoppard.

NYMag B+
(Christopher Bonanos) If it’s not going to change the world, Why Torture Is Wrong can at least try to make a dent in it, and Durang gets a lot of mileage out of the twin streams of humor and menace that run through his complicated script... There is one danger to writing a play like this, and that is its specificity. A number of topical references, especially to John Yoo and his definition of torture, are going to severely limit its shelf life. (It’s going to become a period piece pretty fast, as Yoo becomes the Lieutenant William Calley of our time.) But maybe that’s okay; if the Bush administration’s excesses are becoming old news, that means we’re on our way out of a very dark place. The audience’s peals of laughter here may come largely from relief.

Theater News Online B+
(Bill Stevenson) There are very few living playwrights who have the guts -let alone the skill -to find humor in a deadly serious subject like the torture of suspected terrorists. With Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Christopher Durang delivers a biting, bracing absurdist comedy with "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a central plot point. Like its title, the satire is too long and rather unwieldy. Nonetheless, it's undeniably audacious and often mordantly funny. The Public Theater has given it a near-perfect production that boasts a sensational cast and an elaborate revolving set... Although the first act goes on too long, at least we get to hear Benanti warble a few bars of a Michel Legrand song. The second act is tighter, but the ersatz happy ending feels forced. Unlike the rest of Durang's politically charged satire, the finale is reminiscent of other recent plays and musicals.

CurtainUp B
(Simon Saltzman)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.

Time Out NY B
(Adam Feldman) If the play takes a while to find its footing on David Korins's beautiful revolving set, its assets are well worth catching: expert physical and verbal comedy, all in the service of a timely political sensibility that is luxuriantly dark but bracingly uncynical. For all his jabs about theater, Durang embraces its potential to remake the world, if only for a while.

Financial Times B-
(Brendan Lemon) Souls parched for humour find refreshment here. In his new play, Christopher Durang provides a plethora of jokes, most of which hit their target and some of which, given Durang’s scattershot style, fall just wide of the mark. Also included: a spectacular study in daffiness by Kristine Nielsen and some rage-fuelled commentary about the absurdity of using torture to fight a war against torturers. Durang’s taste for absurdity is apparent in the play’s fully unfurled moniker: Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. Such a title feels vieux jeu – as if Durang filled a notebook with outrage during eight years of George W. Bush and decided to empty its contents on to the Public Theatre’s Newman stage. On the other hand, since when did torture disappear from the planet, and didn’t the Obama administration just ratchet up the rebranded “war on terror” in Afghanistan?

Variety C+
(David Rooney) If the title sounds like a more straightforwardly lefty answer to a Stephen Colbert think-piece, that's pretty much what the play devolves into after an exhilarating start. As much as they are still a part of our reality, red-alert paranoia over radical Islam, and a Cheney-style shadow government organization willing to lop off fingers and ears to extract a confession feel like yesterday's satirical targets. But that's not to say there are no laughs. Perhaps the most unexpected of them come from designer David Korins' ingenious revolving set, so perfectly attuned to the claustrophobic warped reality of Durang's world. Even scene changes are a delight, with the meticulously designed multiple compartments flying by like a spinning zoetrope, often still inhabited by the play's characters... In his best plays, Durang peels back the wacky exteriors to show the sorrowful depths beneath his characters, but no such surgery takes place here. Instead, he resorts to not especially clever metatheatrics and overuse of mock voiceovers (by David Aaron Baker) before handing the reins to an exasperated Felicity, who steps out of character to reshape the outcome. But at that point, the play just fizzles into ineffectual whimsy.

Wall Street Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) Vast amounts of ingenuity have been lavished on "Why Torture Is Wrong" by Nicholas Martin, the director, who does his best to create the illusion that Mr. Durang's script is funnier and more focused than it really is. I was going to single out Ms. Nielsen for special praise, but the fact is that everyone in the cast deserves it, and Mr. Martin's zippy staging maximizes the comic possibilities afforded by David Korin's turntable set, which keeps the show in near-constant motion. Would that this collective cleverness had been put to more timely use! Aside from being overlong and insufficiently amusing, "Why Torture Is Wrong" has missed its moment: The Bush administration is now history, and henceforth all will be changed, changed utterly by a president of whom Mr. Durang is an avowed admirer. (Maybe that's the point of the happy ending.) War on terror? What war on terror? "The administration has stopped using the phrase," Secretary of State Clinton announced the other day. Perhaps a time will come, though, when Christopher Durang finds it possible to chortle no less sardonically at such starry-eyed proclamations. The sword of a true satirist, after all, is double-edged.

(Matt Windman) The play begins with a solid premise that promises one-liners, physical gags and dysfunctional characters. But when Durang tries to get more bizarre and serious in Act Two, in which Felicity somehow relives her past, the play hits a frustrating standstill. In spite of Nicholas Martin’s handsome staging on a revolving set, Act Two drags endlessly and is devoid of clear meaning or laughs.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) Durang’s point is that you shouldn’t assume the worst about people based on your own prejudices. (Well, as far as Zamir is concerned, that is - Leonard is apparently fair game.) But given what we see of Zamir’s behavior, Good Little Liberal Felicity’s eventual turnaround is more disquieting than inspiring. If Durang believes that date-rapists can be reformed with just some nice small talk at a bar, as is the central argument of the jaw-dropping final scene, perhaps he should consider giving up playwriting for a career in law enforcement or rehabilitation? This touchy-feely simplemindedness prevents Why Torture Is Wrong from seeming like anything other than a rambling whinefest best confined to the George W. Bush era. The issue of whether torture is, or should be, acceptable under any circumstances is one well worth exploring - even (or perhaps especially) through Durang’s delightfully fractured dramatic lens. But his treatment of Zamir and Felicity is so off-kilter that it looks like he’s straining to put his sympathies on anything other than Leonard: Is drugging and marrying a drunk woman then threatening her into not escaping somehow acceptable just because Leonard’s interrogation tactics are bloodier still?

The New Yorker F+
(John Lahr) I have seen actors walk off the set. I have seen audiences walk out of the theatre. But not until Christopher Durang's "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" (at the Public) have I seen a playwright walk out on his own play. "I don't like this. I don't like what's happened," the ingenue Felicity (Laura Benanti) says, near the finale, having spent most of the evening desperately trying to enlist the help of her reactionary parents in getting an annulment of her marriage to Zamir (Amir Arison), a Middle Eastern stranger whom she married after a drunken one-night stand, and whom she thinks might be a terrorist. "There's no way I can imagine a positive outcome from this. I don't want to be a part of it," Felicity adds, and we feel her pain.

That Sounds Cool F+
(Aaron Riccio) According to John Yoo’s infamous memo, it’s only torture if it causes organ failure. Legally, then, Christopher Durang is off the hook; though he throws everything at the wall in his new play, hoping to fracture a funny bone or two, the audience is likely to survive both acts. Whether they’ll want to is quite another story: Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is his most “duranged” play. Durang is right to assign Looney Tunes nicknames to the torturers in this play, but he grows so absurd that he struggles to make a point. (Our extremism is just as bad as their extremism?) Given how poorly his jokes promote the plot—instead of dealing with terrorism, he pokes fun at theater; instead of dealing with a bad marriage, he waxes poetic on porn—it’s no surprise that Durang eventually jettisons the whole plot, settling on a deus ex Hooters love story instead. A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; Newsday A 13; Theatermania A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; NY1 A 13; Bloomberg News A- 12; New York Post A- 12; AmericanTheaterWeb A- 12; Village Voice B+ 11; The Daily News B+ 11; Back Stage B+ 11; Associated Press B+ 11; NYMag B+ 11; Theater News Online B+ 11; CurtainUp B 10; TONY B 10; Financial Times B- 9; Variety C+ 8; WSJ C- 6; AMNY D+ 5; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; The New Yorker F+ 2; That Sounds Cool F+ 2; TOTAL: 238/24 = 9.92 (B)

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