Stages

Review: Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them Is Smart Nonsense by Eclipse Theatre

Hildegarde (Elizabeth Birnkrant), Leonard (Patrick Thornton) and Looney Tunes (Devon Nimerfroh) take matters into their own hands, trying to get Zamir (Siddhartha Rajan) to confess. Photo by Scott Dray.

If you need a respite from the depressing politics of today, I recommend an evening of topsy-turvy politics and zaniness by Eclipse Theatre. They’re the company that specializes in one playwright per season and you have the chance to see their final Christopher Durang play, Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.

The convoluted structure of that title will tell you something about what’s in store at the Athenaeum’s Studio Three. It’s a story that reminds you of our fears of terrorism, and of the other, as well as parents’ fears for (or ignorance of) their children’s safety. It’s the story of Felicity (Tracey Green), her new husband who she met last night at Hooters, and her parents, who obsess over theater and old movies, collect butterflies and carry on a shadow government. It’s a household where conversations never take a linear course.

The play opens with Felicity, minimally garbed, awakening in a hotel room bed with a stranger (Zamir played by Siddhartha Rajan). She quickly dresses and is about to leave, when Zamir says, “Well, married people live together, no?” That’s how she discovers that the man she doesn’t remember meeting last night is now her husband. (A lot of liquor and possibly a date rape drug were involved, we learn gradually.) She  questions him about what he does for a living (not much), his credit cards (none, since he has bad credit and doesn’t like to pay bills). She learns she has none either because her  bag and credit cards were taken by a mugger. The answers don’t make her hopeful and when she suggests they have the marriage annulled, he explodes angrily. “… my male ego is fragile and when it gets bruised I can get violent.” (A running joke is that Zamir insists he’s Irish.)

Felicity goes home to get help from her parents. Her mother Luella (Elaine Carlson) has trouble keeping a conversation on course and repeats the same questions to her daughter in every conversation. “How is the city, darling? Are you still enjoying the culture, the nightlife, the museums, the theater?” And Felicity always responds, “Eccccch. I hate theater. It’s so boring. It’s just unbearable.” Felicity tells her mother about her sudden marriage and says she fears he’s a terrorist, in the Mafia or a serial killer. She hopes her parents can help her get the marriage annulled.

Photo by Scott Dray.

Felicity’s father Leonard (Patrick Thornton), who actually collects something other than butterflies, is firmly stuck in the Vietnam era, detests the UN, shoots squirrels that threaten his butterflies, and believes he is involved in some sort of shadow government. Yes, it’s Leonard (code name 3:10 to Yuma) torturing Zamir in the top photo, along with Hildegarde (code name Scooby Doo, played by Elizabeth Birnkrant) and Looney unes, an advocate of water torture (Devon Nimerfroh).

Later there are scenes that replicate their meeting at Hooters but with more style than the actual fast casual shop that emphasizes boobs. Nimerfroh plays the host, singer and also is the voice of the Narrator throughout. The final character in this Looney Tunes production is the Reverend Mike (John Arthur Lewis), who produces porno films and happened to be available to perform a late-night marriage.

Act two turns meta in a dramatic way with fourth wall breaking and script revisions. This shouldn’t work, but Steve Scott’s smooth direction ensures that it does.

The cast of Why Torture Is Wrong is uniformly solid. Elaine Carlson is particularly good as the sometimes unstrung Luella, wearing the same dress in a different color in every scene. Rachel Lambert is responsible for costume design and Kevin Hagan for set design. Lighting is by Matt Sharp and sound design by Cameron Moulton.

There are some unnecessary but clever theater references. Luella asks her daughter if she hates theater because of “those three evenings of Tom Stoppard plays. There’s a woman in my bridge club who says she knows someone who killed himself during the third one, it was so dull.” That would be Salvage, part three of the three-part The Coast of Utopia about intellectuals in pre-revolutionary Russia, staged at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in 2007. I did not find it dull. Questioned at another time, Felicity responds that theater tickets are too expensive and finally, in exasperation, “I’ve seen 100 plays by Martin McDonagh, 200 plays by David Hare, 300 plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Frayn.” Luella sympathizes that it’s too bad there are no American playwrights any more

This review may not make total sense, but that’s okay. If you like smart nonsense and political and pop culture satire, you’ll enjoy this Durang play. Steve Scott also directed Durang’s better-known play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at GoodmanTheatre  in 2015. Eclipse also staged Baby With the Bathwater and Beyond Therapy as part of their Durang season. Their playwright for 2020 will be Caryl Churchill.

A caveat. Durang’s play was written in 2009, long before the #MeToo movement opened up the topic of sexual assault. The  play is zany and performed with good humor, but we have to recognize that Felicity is drunk, drugged and probably raped by the man who marries her. There’s no consent involved for any of these acts. Despite the overall jolliness of the play, we have to acknowledge that.

Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Eclipse Theatre Company continues thru December 15 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $35 for performances Thursday-Sunday; there are matinees both Saturday and Sunday. Running time is two hours plus an intermission.

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