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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Why Torture is Wrong ... Durang's 2009 Moral and Political Satire at Theatre Project

Why Torture is Wrong ...
Gary Glor, Phil Eichinger and
Noreen Farley

As the lights come up on Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, Felicity wakes to find herself in bed with a stranger. The swarthy man tells her that his name is Zamir, that they met at Hooters the night before and, that after getting drunk, were married by a pornography filmmaker minister friend of his. Zamir implies that he might be a terrorist (but that he is Irish), and Felicity is convinced (correctly) that Zamir had slipped a date rape pill into her drink. Given that this is a précis of the first scene of a Christopher Durang farce, Felicity, doing the only logical thing possible, brings Zamir to the Maplewood, New Jersey, home of her parents in order to introduce him to them. However, while Zamir is a smarmy guy, he is not the evening's villain. That role is reserved for Felicity's paranoiac right-wing nutcase father, Leonard.

The upshot is that Leonard has a secret arsenal and war room in the house from which he leads a "shadow government" troop of real life loonies replete with code names lifted from old Looney Tune cartoons. One of them even assumes the character voices of Mel Blanc. Spying on conversations about a planned porno movie (The Big Bang), Leonard's loonies conclude that a missile attack will be launched the next day. Zamir will confirm this and anything else that they believe, but not before a severed ear and three of his fingers end up in a Ziploc bag.

At this point, this absurdist farce, which includes a narrator and direct addresses to the audience, is interrupted by Felicity who proposes that she does not like the direction in which matters have gone. She proposes a new scenario with improvements in the nature and behavior of everyone. Her intervention is the crowning jewel of Durang's accomplishment, although it has been criticized by others with a blood lust for conservatives. For in designing her new scenario, Durang brings a rare depth and balance to his sharp political satire. Our radical Islamic foe has acted really badly (and it is devoutly hoped that their behavior will change). Thus, the crazed paranoiacs on the right are, to some extent, the victims of events. However, Durang will have no truck with the justification and use of torture as an interrogation method. Rather than being messy and discursive (as it has appeared to some), every aspect of the play reflects the mind bending madness and complexity of international relations in today's world, as well as the vacuity which many employ so as not to have to acknowledge it. Durang's hopes for reconciliation may appear beyond the realm of possibility, but they are clearly the product of a humane artist. Most importantly, with Torture, Durang shows himself to be a brilliantly witty practitioner of political farce.

Under the sharp and supple direction of director Mark Spina, the ensemble performance is remarkably smooth and integrated. At the center is Felicity, another Durang damsel in distress. Meghan Murray has just the right touch of off-centered zaniness to be an amusing Felicity without losing her position as the most rational figure at hand. Phil E. Eichinger conveys the unpleasant nature of Zamir with the deftly humorous touch that allows us to enjoy his presence. Harriett Trangucci is delightful as Felicity's mother Luella. Off in her own world, Luella delivers non-sequiturs (mostly about the theatre) while ignoring her family's troubles. Trangucci delivers one of Durang's best conundrums with deadpan accuracy: "I really don't know what normal is. That's what I go to the theatre to find out." Like Talmud, one can spend countless hours debating all the implications of just that one line.

Gary Glor displays a fine madness as nutcase Leonard who had thought that the kids who came to his house in Halloween costumes were Mexicans attacking him. Noreen Farley as his uncomfortable with torture loony follower Hildegarde repeatedly loses her panties and pulls them back up with an hilarious grace unbefitting her addled state. I must note that her unmannered performance is the best work that I have seen from this New Jersey stage veteran. Kevin Melendez is most amusing as the narrator (the Voice) and the Looney Tunes fixated loon. Melendez most impressively sings the Dietz-Schwartz "Dancing in the Dark," Torture's most appropriate theme song, and David C. Neal is a fine Reverend Mike.

Tom Rowe's rotating sets are cleverly supplemented by excellent projections on the rear wall of the stage. With budgets tight for so many theatres, such fine projected images offer theatres' opportunities for enhancing their productions' visual richness and detail without overextending budgets.

With its production of last year's (NYSF) Public Theatre success Torture, Artistic Director Mark Spina again displays the Theatre Project's status as a unique and valuable jewel of New Jersey theatre. Durang and his interpreters at the Theatre Project are as persuasive as they are entertaining in their skewering the extreme paranoia of nut cases on the right, and our previous Administration's narrow definition of what constitutes torture in order to allow the use of extreme interrogation techniques on enemy combatants in Afghanistan. So, when preparing to torture Zamir, Leonard repeats the actual words of an Assistant Attorney General who opined that harsh interrogation is not torture if it doesn't cause organ damage.

The intelligent satire of Torture is so much more persuasive than grim, angry plays with their hate-filled depictions of darkly evil Americans on the right, America bashing, and whitewashing of anti-democratic, savage dictators which seem to become de rigueur on some of our stages. While no one should ever question the right of artists to express such views, it is also a viewer's right to question the efficacy of such plays. I can think of a number of writers whose plays would be stronger and more persuasive if, a la Durang, they would substitute reason, humor and a bit of balance in place of venom and invective.

Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them is an hilarious and trenchant satiric farce which restores political satire to our theatre at a rarified level of quality. With this production, Artistic Director Mark Spina continues to maintain the Theatre Project's status as a unique and valuable jewel of New Jersey theatre.

Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them performed July 8 - August 1, 2010 at the Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 908-659-5189; on-line: www.thetheaterproject.org.

Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang; directed by Mark Spina

Cast
Felicity..........................Meghan Murray
Zamir..........................Phil E. Eichinger
Luella......................Harriett Trangucci
Leonard................................Gary Glor
The Voice....................Kevin Melendez
Reverend Mike................David C. Neal
Hildegarde....................Noreen Farley


- Bob Rendell



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