Christopher Durang gives us torture as farce at Custommade Theatre

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 » Recommended)

(“Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” plays at the Custommade Theatre in San Francisco from January 11 through February 10.)

Christopher Durang ascended to comedic eminence in the 1980s with such hilarious and hugely successful plays as “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It all To You”, both of which are still frequently produced decades after their debut. Durang devised and perfected a style of comedy in which characters confess outrageous details of their personal lives with an unnerving candor and a comic directness that remains rooted in authentic psychological truth. Even at their most outrageous, his characters remain recognizable and believable.

Always engaged with social hot buttons such as pop psychology, bisexuality and the Catholic Church, in 2009, he took on even more complex political and social material with “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them”. The play is receiving its Bay Area premiere at Custommade Theatre.

Eden Nuendorf as Felicity and Sal Mattos as Zamir in Custommade Theatre's production of Christopher Durang's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them"
Eden Nuendorf as Felicity and Sal Mattos as Zamir in Custommade Theatre’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them”. Photo Credit: Custommade Theatre

Here’s the premise: young Felicity wakes up with a hangover beside a strange man in a strange room, with no memory of the night before. As she prepares to leave, the young man, Zamir, informs her that they were married the night before, while she was in a blackout. As soon as she speaks of annulling the marriage, he becomes threatening. She tries to learn something about him, asking about his job. He is unresponsive.

Given his exotic name, his evasiveness and his sudden threats of violence, she begins to suspect she has been abducted by a terrorist. Not knowing what else to do, she takes him home to meet the family.

Her father Leonard isn’t much help when she tells him, “I think I was given a date rape drug!”

“Well,” he replies, “at least the young man has spunk.”

What sort of Dad is Leonard? When Felicity suggests he might love his guns a bit less, he defends them by reminding her of the time he shot at some masked home invaders demanding property.

“But they were children!” she reminds him.

“They were wearing masks!”

“It was Halloween!”

“They looked like Mexicans!”

Mother isn’t much help either, completely out of touch with reality, and babbling incessantly about the theatre (and providing Durang with lots of opportunities to poke fun at contemporaries).

Things take a serious turn in Act II when Dad becomes convinced that Zamir is a terrorist, planning a bombing. He kidnaps the man, locking him in the attic, which turns out to house not a butterfly collection (surprise!), but a gun collection and the headquarters for what Leonard describes as “the shadow government”.

Leonard sets out to torture Zamir for information. His defense of this action uses precisely the language of Bush administration apologists. The arguments make no more sense than, and follow the same skewed logic, as the absurdist comedy that proceeds it. The effect is unnerving to say the least.

“Why Torture Is Wrong” is full of laughs from beginning to end, but makes its point about the absurdity of torture and the presumed arguments in its favor with startling clarity. This play will make you laugh and it will also make you think.

Under Claire Rice’s direction, all of the actors do a skillful job of delivering Durang’s outlandish material, without exaggerating or overplaying, but simply following the inane logic the playwright has laid out. The result is both hysterical and thought provoking. Jonathon Brooks, as Reverend Mike, the minister/pornography producer who marries Felicity and Zamir is particularly funny, as is Teri Whipple as Hildegarde, Leonard’s colleague in the shadow government, who can’t keep her panties up.

With this production, Custommade Theatre company continues to creatively fulfill their stated mission “to produce plays that awaken our social conscience, focusing on the strength of the ensemble, and creating an intimate theatrical experience.” They do all that.

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“Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” by Christopher Durang, directed by Claire Rice, produced by Custommade Theatre. Scenic Design: Joshua Saulpaw. Costume Design: Amanda Lee Angott. Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski. Sound Design: Billie Cox.

Felicity: Eden Nuendorf. Zamair: Sal Mattos. Luella: Jennie Brick. Leonard: Paul Stout. Reverend Mike: Jonathon Brooks. Hildegarde: Teri Whipple. Voice/Narrator: Christopher P. Kelly.

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