By Alex Rendon
By Monica McGivern
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Alex Rendon
By Monica McGivern
By Ian Witlen
By Christina Mendenhall
By Michele Eve Sandberg
Awkward silence is bad, but we have it for a reason: Whatever we might say in its stead would be worse. The awkward silence is a product of the forebrain, of the superego, of consciousness. It springs from the place where we keep our propriety and manners. It is a good thing, fundamental to civility (and to civility's happy byproduct, civilization), and it appears not at all in Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.
Durang, a graduate of both Harvard and Yale and now a teacher at Julliard, writes dark comedies, but we laugh at them more because we are nervous than because they are funny. (Though they're funny too.) We are nervous because so many of Durang's characters, like Why Torture's budding porn star/probable terrorist, Zamir (Nick Duckart), say things that people shouldn't say and are blithely unaware that their words have consequences. In Zamir's case, his ill-advised statements include saying to his wife of one night, "I mean, d'you wanna keep all your teeth?" in response to a not-at-all inflammatory query, and their consequences include the slow removal of his fingers by his father-in-law's pliers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Why Torture opens in Zamir's bedroom, where Zamir sleeps contentedly beside Felicity (Sharon Kremen), who suddenly awakens, terrified, wondering where she is and how she got there. The expression she wears in this scene is one she will carry through the play: frantic, with her mouth stuck midway between a nervous smile and a scream. She got drunk last night at Hooter's and somehow got married to Zamir, a total stranger. The minister who officiated is also a porn producer, Reverend Mike (Christian Rockwell, in the most likably sleazy performance of the year). Zamir is, by his own admission, an unemployed petty criminal with a violent streak. The audience doesn't laugh when Felicity suggests they get an annulment and Zamir then threatens to beat her. The sudden outbreak of violence is too hyperreal, cutting through the studied weirdness of the scene like a knife through meat, as sudden and discomfiting as real violence in real life. Somebody behind me in the auditorium groaned, and I sympathized entirely: Only the first scene, and we're already into woman-beating mode. Why Torture could be a very grim slog.
It isn't, because we soon adapt to Durang's bizarro world. We learn its alien rhythms and emotional physics, which keep its characters leaping from sweetness to violence and back again as lithely as grasshoppers on the moon. We adjust because Durang's world is the one bubbling just beneath the surface of our own. All id, no superego; all honesty, no hedging.
Durang skips over any explanation of why Felicity would not simply leave Zamir's bed, call the police, scream for help, or handle her misadventure in some other rational way. But to get to the rest of the play, we must suspend our collective disbelief and accept that Felicity trots Zamir over to her parents' place to introduce her new hubby to the family.
We've never met anyone like Felicity's father, Leonard (Dave Corey), who pulls a gun on Zamir seven or eight times during their first meeting because he suspects Zamir is a terrorist. ("I'm Irish!" Zamir insists, though he isn't.) Scenes inside the home have the same manic quality — civil to violent and then civil again — as the scene in Zamir's apartment. Leonard's spazzouts come in between lucid moments when Leonard eats French toast cooked by his wife, Luella (Barbara Bradshaw), and discusses the aesthetic merits of several species of butterfly. (He is, ostensibly, a butterfly collector, and when he goes upstairs, it is supposedly to check on his collection.)
And yet we have met Leonard: He is a not-quite parody of every stupid, misanthropic neo-con who ever misspelled his own name on an NRA application, just as Felicity is a not-quite parody of every yellerbelly moral relativist who ever chewed her fingernails raw wondering if Americans disrespected Muslim culture by objecting to sharia law. Durang is peeking into the most embarrassingly reactionary corners of our heads and taking notes. By the time we learn that Leonard is not actually a butterfly collector but works for a shadow government operated out of the Pentagon, we feel quite at home. Soon, he is upstairs with the pliers, performing his own version of extraordinary rendition on Zamir.
Still, the play isn't serious political satire — or at least, it doesn't seem that way while you watch it — because its characters are too superficially dumb to explain themselves in terms of politics. They're almost nonfunctional. Scooby-Doo, Leonard's assistant (Pamela Roza) in his butterfly room-cum-torture chamber, can't even seem to keep her underpants on: They keep falling to her ankles, over and over again, for no reason I can divine. Another assistant, Loony Tunes (Erik Fabregat), suffers from a weird variant of Tourette's that forces him to express himself solely in the voices of cartoon characters. (I can't imagine how director Richard Jay Simon would have cast the role if Fabregat hadn't been available. He and only he could pull this off in a way that remains entertaining after 30 seconds.)
Bradshaw's Luella is even weirder, if possible, and I suspect she's the sole force keeping this nervous comedy coherent. She's simultaneously funnier and scarier than any other character in the show: reacting to her hyperviolent husband by knitting away at a blanket (which, adorably, always seems to match her outfits) while smiling beatifically and talking about theater. She's a woman whose consciousness and agency have been stripped away by years of exposure to a monstrous world, and Bradshaw expresses her vacancy and diminution in a tour-de-force performance that's equal parts Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Terry Schiavo, and pure originality. When her temper finally snaps — as we knew it must from the moment she deflected a gun battle by offering to make French toast — she loses her mind and walks away with the show.