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Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kristine Nielsen and Laura Benanti
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Let's talk about Kristine Nielsen. Not because she's a vital part of Christopher Durang's new play at The Public Theater's Newman Theater, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, but because she isn't.

Although Nielsen is technically playing a put-upon New Jersey housewife named Luella, who must cope with a distant and violent husband and a sophisticatedly frustrated daughter, she's really playing someone far more fabulous: herself. Or at least the persona she's cultivated as a super-ditz Durang interpreter in plays like Betty's Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon, the one tormented by every little spin and shake of the planet as it spins on its wobbly axis. For playing a woman who sees and feels everything but understands nothing, there's no one better than Nielsen.

Her first appearance here, fastidiously arranging flowers with the blurry fluster of a drunken hummingbird, is unreasonably funny - even more so because she does it silently. When she's describing her love of the theatre to her uninterested daughter, her voice is flooded with giddily confused earnestness. And when she describes how two people offed themselves at Broadway shows - one with a gun at Faith Healer, the other by sheer force of will at The Coast of Utopia - keeping yourself from dying of laughter is a Herculean challenge.

Even when Nielsen must get serious, she's a comic dynamo. Luella must eventually stand her ground against decades of her husband's psychological abuse, and when she does - demanding, among other things, that the plug be pulled if she's ever put on life support - the spirit comes through just as readily as the comedy. You feel for her, yes, but you don't pity her - Nielsen doesn't play that game. She's going to make you as demented as Luella is - and welcome the descent into madness.

She doesn't have to work very hard. Director Nicholas Martin has given the play a fine production, and David Korins has devised a spectacular rotating set for depicting each of the locales in which the action takes place. But it all seems to exist only to put a glossy sheen on something that otherwise wouldn't be worth a second glance. Rather than being content with inconsequentiality - which is sometimes good enough for him - Durang has gotten all "significant," with disastrous, discomforting results.

Richard Poe, Audrie Neenan, David Aaron Baker, and Amir Arison
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Luella's daughter Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up married to a man named Zamir (Amir Arison) she's convinced is a terrorist. Why? Aside from his continually slipping her date-rape drugs, threatening to hurt her if she dares get the marriage annulled, an utter inability and unwillingness to hold a job, screaming about blowing up her parents' house, and lying at every opportunity about his obvious Middle-Eastern heritage, no particular reason. Of course, the true villain of the play is Felicity's father, Leonard (Richard Poe), an arch-conservative member of the shadow government with an attic full of firearms and contacts with a woman named Hildegard (Audrie Neenan) who can't keep her panties on (literally) and a man (David Aaron Baker) who can only speak in voices cribbed from old Warner Bros. cartoons. When Leonard and Zamir collide... Well, just from the play's title, you can imagine what poor Zamir has to endure.

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?

If there's more to this, the actors aren't playing it. Arison's Zamir seems like a risible jerk from the get-go, Poe is sheer one-note bluster, Baker (who also plays several smaller roles) is bland but decent, and Neenan and John Pankow (as a porn-producer-turned-minister who fuels the fires of Leonard's hatred) do as much as they can with what little they have to work with. Benanti, better known for her musical roles (including her recent Tony-winning turn in Gypsy), can't make the tectonic shift of character required to change from victim to U.N. peacekeeper - although, in fairness, I'm not sure any actress could.

Nielsen's the only one entirely at home - and why not? She doesn't have to excuse the atrocities everyone else does. She merely needs to get lost in the complexities of her existence, and the more removed from the others that Luella is, the better for her. Luella may have created her universe as a way to escape the horrors of her everyday life, but it's justified, honest, and compelling in a way that the "real world" of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them never quite is.

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them
Through April 26
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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