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Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at the Stella Adler Theatre

by D. Jette~

Daniel Henning continues his quest to make The Blank Theatre Company Hollywood’s first regional theater with the west coast premiere of Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.  With a superb cast, an inventive production design and Durang’s timely and on-the-nose satire, he and the Blank have taken another big step in that direction.

Watching this play I am reminded why Durang is one of my favorites.  His style lets him talk directly about whatever he wants, whether his subject be religion, politics, rape, or his contemporaries in the arts.  Torture is unapologetic.  Durang cites political events, personalities and the vagaries of public discourse like only he can – without subtlety, tact or inhibition.   He chides his peers in the theater for their suicide-inducing lengthy dramas yet seems himself to float above the muck.  By adding cultural stereotypes into his usual recipe for selfish characters that lack the common tool of inner monologue, he gives us an easy hold on the ideas he means to smash together.

The performances are great, and are all worth mentioning.  Rhea Seehorn takes on the always tortured role of a Durang heroine (Felicity), and she makes her way through the abuse with not a little mugging.  Christine Estabrook plays the adorably unaware mother Luella and steals her scenes with charming non-sequitors.  Mike Genovese drives the ideological farce with his gruff caricature of a militia-man who pretends his hidden gun stockpile is a butterfly collection.  He embodies Durang’s archetype of a right wing nutjob as Felicity’s overbearing father and spouts Fox News talking points as his own strongly held convictions without the slightest tongue-in-cheek, a difficult task for any actual human being.  Nicholas Brendon chews the scenery as the hippie-dippie porn director/minister who urges calm and understanding in the face of date-rape and torture.  Catherine Hicks makes an hilarious cameo as a clumsy undercover agent who literally cannot keep her panties on.

Sunil Malhotra plays Felicity’s violent but sensitive new husband Zamir who, when faced with the prospect of annulment, threatens her so often that the audience is taken aback. It took me a couple instances of him waving his fist in Felicities face before I realized his behavior was a nod to how marriages are normally upheld in fundamentalist Islamic homes. I may have been the only person laughing, but Malhotra still whipped in and out of menace with delicious whimsy. Durang himself comments (throughout an intermittent narrator) that any audience would groan at the sight of such violence and disregard for women, and it seems he is willing to abandon his usually masterful timing and misdirection to use his trademark shock style to throw these issues in our face, whether we laugh or not.  Like Kurt Vonnegut in his last few works, Durang seems ready to preach to us directly and without a condom.

The play answers the question of why torture doesn’t work, but not necessarily the question posed in the title.  I was skeptical that Durang’s usual disregard for human suffering would make it difficult to demonstrate why torture is ‘wrong’, and I have a feeling that in choosing an ending for his play he encountered a similar problem.  The evening ends strangely in a sentimental fantasy where Felicity complains (to the narrator, no less) enough to change the nature of the characters on stage, forcing them to drop their vulgar qualities in the name of a storybook ending.  The final scene is awkward in its lack of irony, especially when the climax we were expecting was so much more violent and consequential.

Jeff G. Rack’s set design is a special part of this performance and makes excellent use of the Adler’s space.  The use of a rotating wall, a classy Hooters Restaurant, and a disappearing scrim that hides the Shadow Government’s secret lair are all a surprising treat for the Los Angeles theater-goer.  The music choices made by Henning and sound designer Warren Davis induce roaring laughter between the changes, and Michael Mullen’s costume design leaves nothing to be desired.  (I especially loved the identical dresses in various colors he gives to Estabrook.)  Overall this play is as entertaining as it is thoughtful, and the magnificent cast is a step above what Hollywood usually has to offer.  Even if this is not my favorite from Durang, it’s definitely my favorite from the Blank, and it is not to be missed.

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is written by Christopher Durang and directed by Daniel Henning.  It is produced by Stacy Reed, Jon VanMiddlesworth and Noah Wyle, stage managed by Shaunessy Quinn, with set design by Jeff G. Rack and lighting by R. Christopher Stokes.  Costumes are designed by Michael Mullen, props by Michael O’Hara, and sound by Warren Davis.  The cast features Nicholas Brendon, Christine Estabrook, Mike Genovese, Catherine Hicks, Sunil Malhotra, Alec Mapa and Rhea Seehorn.

The west coast premiere of Why Torture plays at Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through March 14, 2010.

The Stella Adler Theatre is located 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA  90028, just east of Highland.