Saturday, November 28, 2009

Theater review: Durang's 'Torture' loses satiric sting in silliness

Pamela Roza, Dave Corey, Erik Fabregat and Nick Duckart
in Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.


By Hap Erstein

Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre has excellent taste in playwrights, but it is much more erratic when it comes to selecting plays from their catalogues. The result is second-rate work from such first-rate writers as John Patrick Shanley (Dirty Story), Neil LaBute (Wrecks) and now Christopher Durang (Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them).

Under that amusing tabloid title, Durang has written a scattershot send-up of America’s paranoia over the terrorists among us. Durang has long taken aim at social extremism with an exaggerated voice that is usually both tart and smart. Think of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You or Beyond Therapy or The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

With Why Torture Is Wrong, though, he settles for mere silliness, gathering a gallery of cartoonish character for easy laughs, without ever making much of a point. And by late in the second act, after painting himself into a corner, Durang throws up his hands and wraps up his play with a musical number that reeks of desperation.

The evening starts promisingly enough, as Felicity (Sharon Kremen) wakes up in a hotel bed next to a guy she can barely remember from the night before. He is dark-bearded, quick-tempered Zamir (Nick Duckart), a dead ringer for a Middle Eastern terrorist by any racial profiling, even if he does insist that he is Irish. What is worse for Felicity, he reminds her that they were married the previous night in an alcoholic haze.

The comic possibilities get even better when Felicity takes Zamir home to meet her parents, who are no one’s idea of grounded, nurturing or open-minded. Luella (the inspired Barbara Bradshaw) lives in a cloud of memories of her peak Broadway viewing experiences, which allows Durang to skewer such targets as Tom Stoppard and the musical Wicked because, oh, why not? To occupy her hands, Luella perpetually knits, often in colors that happen to match her wardrobe. And when at one point, Luella faints into unconsciousness, her fingers reflexively keep knitting away.

Felicity’s dad, Leonard (Dave Corey), is your standard right-wing xenophobe. He fancies himself a butterfly collector, but that turns out to be code. What he really collects is guns, ammo and other weapons of interpersonal destruction, which he keeps in a second-floor arsenal that soon will be the scene of Zamir’s extraordinary rendition.

Are you laughing yet? It is not that torture and terrorism are unfit subjects for comedy, just that most of Durang’s humor comes from the tangential quirks of his supporting characters.

For instance, there is a well-meaning Republican underling named Hildegard (Pamela Roza) who, when the action flags, manages to have her underpants slip down around her ankles. Or Erik Fabregat, who narrates the play, and shows up as a waiter, a lounge singer and, most giggle-inducing, as a henchman to Leonard who speaks only in Looney Tunes character voices. So much for trenchant satire.

Resident scenic designer Sean McClelland has come up with an attractive series of sets that satisfy Durang’s multiple-location requirements, and director Richard Jay Simon knits the wackiness into as cohesive a whole as possible.

But it does make one wonder what Mosaic Theatre could come up with if it selected a play worthy of the care and attention it has lavished on Why Torture Is Wrong.

WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, Mosaic Theatre, American Heritage Center for the Arts, 12200 West Broward Blvd., Plantation. Continuing through Dec. 13. Tickets: $37. Call (954) 577-8243.

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