Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them Review
The line between terror and hilarity is one carefully tread by dark comedic theater. Staging and performing a dark comedy is akin to walking a tightrope; one false move can plummet an audience into discomfort, while refusing to move forwards at all may dilute a work’s meaning.
Fortunately, the Hofstra Department of Drama and Dance’s staging of Christopher Durang’s 2009 play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them manages to keep an even keel while navigating the murky waters of dark comedy. The show’s direction, design, and performances fully embrace the absurdity and postmodern core of Durang’s work without abandoning the playwright’s signature humor.
Durang’s play, set in 2008, details the story of Felicity (Alex Ubalde), a young woman who wakes up one morning to discover that she has been married to Zamir (Sean J. Moran), a hot-tempered ne’er-do-well intent on keeping their union intact. Matters only escalate when Felicity reluctantly introduces Zamir to her father, Leonard (Nick Hoult), a Bush-era militant conservative with an affection for the Second Amendment, and her mother, Luella (Autumn Wehry), an overtly chipper housewife determined to turn a blind eye to her husband’s violent tendencies. Leonard immediately conflicts with Zamir, a Pakistani-American whom he assumes is a terrorist, and begins plotting to brutally extract crucial anti-terrorist information from his oblivious son-in-law.
Much like the play itself, Torture’s lead performances are challenging balancing acts, albeit ones excellently executed. Zamir, a boisterous, misogynistic young man with no immediately visible redeeming characteristics, is humanized in his genuine, endearing monologues to Felicity, which Moran delivers with an almost reluctant honesty. Felicity, the only sane figure in Torture, is a difficult role to perform – while her modus operandi in the first act is to stay calm and level-headed, she later confronts the growing absurdity of her predicament in the second act, a shift that would appear as a total turn-of-the-heel if performed with mediocrity. However, Ubalde’s performance of Felicity avoids any kind of flatness in the first act, making her change in the second seem quite natural.
The roles of Leonard and Luella, meanwhile, avoid any semblance of balance, and revel in extremity. Hoult plays up Leonard’s obviously deplorable racist and violent tendencies, as any competent actor should, but he also injects the character with a certain sense of bravado almost indistinguishable from psychopathy, a choice that certainly reflects Durang’s original parodic intentions for the character. The role of Luella, meanwhile, demands a tension almost like that of a balloon about to burst, and while Wehry’s performance occasionally veers too jerkily into extreme mania, it ultimately makes the character’s forced smiles really feel forced.
The show is peppered with several side characters that serve to inject laughs and inflated absurdism into the show. Reverend Mike, the minister and part-time porn producer that weds Felicity and Zamir, is ably played by Will Ketter, and, despite lacking significant substance, offers several of the show’s biggest laughs. Leonard’s fellow conservative and right hand woman, Hildegarde, has the potential to be somewhat of a tragic character, but her role is relegated to primarily physical comedy by Durang’s script. Nevertheless, Hildegarde’s unrequited affection for Leonard is portrayed aptly by Alyson Pappas-Kirk, who also manages to play quite successfully into the many amusing physical gaffes of her character.
Torture’s biggest display of structural absurdity comes from the Voice (Heidi Gleichauf), a character that manifests herself in different forms as a narrator for the play, a waitress in multiple scenes, and as Looney Tunes, one of Leonard’s sidekicks who happens to speak entirely as various characters from the cartoon of the same name. The Voice acts as a sort of guide throughout the second act of Torture, during which Felicity breaks the fourth wall by attempting to rewind the play in order to deescalate her father’s ultra-violence towards Zamir. The Voice is certainly a complex role, and one that Gleichauf tackles uniquely, giving the character an almost ambivalent voice that feels oddly appropriate in the midst of the play’s madness.
The direction of Torture by Ilona Pierce is measured, and she clearly allows for the natural escalation of the feud between Leonard and Zamir in the first act without allowing it to hit an unnerving fever pitch. She then allows the floodgates of tension to burst in terms of both pacing, performance, and set movements in the latter half of the play. The second act’s writing could lead to a muddling of blocking and overall clarity if handled by a lesser director, but Pierce manages to keep the constant time and setting shifts under concrete control, while making sure the audience has a clear grasp of each character’s situational awareness and intentions. With any absurdist piece à la Stoppard, Becket, or certainly Durang, an audience must be allowed to understand the core of each character, while being assured that they cannot expect a rigid, concrete story from the players. Pierce conveys this necessity with precision.
The Department of Drama’s meticulous care for the particular details in Torture cannot go unnoticed; the set design by David M. Henderson is extremely creative, featuring a sheer wall containing four small, compartmentalized sets that can be rolled out into audience view with speed and efficiency. The set plays an important part in Torture’s second act, during which it is deliberately thrown into disarray as the time structure of the performance is tampered with. The lighting and sound by Rychard Curtiss are also integral to the second act, which relies heavily on dark mood lighting and music. The costume design by Pei-Chi Su is tactfully subdued, although the overtly stereotypical 1950s makeup and costuming of Luella make her appearance somewhat jarring during the first, more grounded act of the play.
Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is a play bubbling with extremities, a play that offers challenging parodic roles as well as more genuine, subdued ones. The Hofstra Department of Drama manages to expertly balance the darkness and the comedy of Christopher Durang’s play with adeptness and ability, delivering a chilling and chuckle-filled staging to a surely satisfied audience.
The remaining performances of Hofstra’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them are being held at 8 p.m. on October 7 and 8 and at 2 p.m. on October 9 in the Joan and Donald Schaeffer Black Box Theater in the New Academic Building.