Meet the cast of characters of Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them, Christopher Durang’s absurdist screwball war-on-terror romantic farce, now getting its West Coast Premiere by The Blank Theatre Company.  There’s:

Felicity (Rhea Seahorn), just your average everyday blonde blue-eyed all-American girl—who happens to find herself in bed one morning with a handsome swarthy stranger claiming to be the husband she met last night at Hooters and married on the spot. Was it alcohol that made her do it, or did the groom slip her the infamous date rape drug?

Zamir (Sunil Malhotra), Felicity’s handsome swarthy newlywed groom, who explains to his bride just how she got into this situation.  “In between all the vomiting,” he tells her, “you said you never put out unless you got married first. I thought you were joking, but I decided to call your bluff. And we got married.  See.”  And he shows her his wedding ring, informing her that her own was stolen when they were robbed on the way back from the ceremony. As to the ethnicity of his name, “It’s Irish,” he insists, and when Felicity dares to question the credibility of that statement, Zamir reveals a hair-trigger temper that shuts up his bride on the spot.

Reverend Mike (Nicholas Brendon), the “Porn-again Christian” minister (and maker of XXX-rated movies) who married Felicity and Zamir despite the bride’s fading in and out of consciousness during the ceremony.  When asked if there isn’t a moral-ethical conflict in being both a man of God and a man of Porn, the Rev replies with sublime logic, “God created sex, and He watches it. Why shouldn’t we?” 

Luella (Christine Estabrook), Felicity’s ditzy mother, unable to carry on a linear conversation without turning the subject around to the theater, her one passion in life. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is,” she tells us. “That’s what I go to the theater for.”  Luella admits that the theater may not be for everyone. After all, one of her friends did commit suicide the third night of The Coast Of Utopia “by force of will,” Luella tells us. If Luella’s satin party dress seems to keep changing color, it’s because she bought ten of them in a variety of pastel hues.

Leonard (Mike Genovese), Felicity’s ultra-right-wing father, forever railing against “cowardly” liberals like his daughter, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, and “that darn Jane Fonda”–and of course that “worthless United Nations.”  “I won’t have it spoken of positively in this house, do you understand?” he orders wife and daughter.  There’s no bigger fan of “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture) than Leonard, who informs us that “John Yoo from the Justice Department wrote a torture memo says that it isn’t torture unless it causes organ failure.  And even if it does that, as long as the President says the words ‘war on terror,’ it’s A-okay.” (Good to know.)

Hildegard (Catherine Hicks) and Looney Tunes (Alec Mapa), Leonard’s two top-secret underlings.  The former can’t seem to keep her underwear from falling down to her ankles.  (“I wear them low,” she explains.)  The latter speaks only in Warner Brothers cartoon voices, whether commenting on the “waw on tewwow” or asked how best to torture a suspected terrorist.  “Bweak da fingah. Bweak da fingah,” he suggests in his best Elmer Fudd.

Why Torture Is Wrong…’s real fireworks begin when Felicity brings Zamir home to meet the parents.  Though Luella is off in her own world as usual, chatting on and on about this show or that, Leonard pulls out his pistol and points it straight at Zamir’s head.  Unfazed, Zamir responds by stating matter-of-factly that if Leonard tries to shoot, Zamir will dial a number on his cellphone (speed dial, I suppose) to have the entire neighborhood blown to smithereens.

Not much more will be revealed about Durang’s laugh-riot of a farce, truly as topical as today’s headlines.  What makes Why Torture Is Wrong… so much more than just an outrageously funny comedy is how firmly rooted in truth it is, despite its over-the-topness.  Suspected terrorists are indeed being sent off to Syria to be tortured.  Right-wing militia are indeed arming themselves to take action against any who fit their definition of the enemy. Social conservatives do indeed give more value to the unborn fetus than to living, breathing human beings who’ve transgressed in one way or another. (Leonard wants to go so far as to register those fetuses (feti?) as Republicans and give them the right to vote.) 

Bush and Cheney fans may not find themselves enamored of Durang’s latest—but then again who knows? This solidly left-leaning reviewer lapped up every one of the playwright’s one-liners, and the majority of last night’s audience appeared to be laughing along with me—often and a lot.

Daniel Henning has directed Why Torture Is Wrong… with the same zip and flair he brought to such diverse fare as Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold And Loeb, Speech & Debate, and Setup & Punch.  The pacing is fast and furious and the performances sparkle.

Despite a bit of early mugging that was a tad broad for me, Seahorn scores high marks for her sitcom-ready girl-next-door plunged into a world she never imagined.  Malhotra combines great comedic timing, sex-appeal, and an ever-present sense of menace to make Zamir both appealing and frightening—as he should be. Genovese channels Bronson, Eastwood, and Stallone into one hilarious vigilante bundle as Leonard, and Broadway’s Estabrook is a non-stop delight as in-her-own-world Luella.  Alec Mapa is his own inimitable self (and more) as Loony Tunes, a Hooters maître d’, and an off-and-onstage narrator that sometimes only Felicity can hear. 

As always, Henning has given some of Hollywood’s most popular TV stars the opportunity to do top-drawer live theater. Hicks (11 seasons on 7th Heaven) proves herself a first-class comedienne as the operative too ladylike to go without panties, even if it means wearing them around her ankles.  (It’s that darn made-abroad elastic!) Brendon (7 seasons on Buffy) follows his delightfully winning solo turn in The SantaLand Diaries with another quirky, funny performance as the hippy-dippy minister of porn whose upcoming feature The Big Bang prompts one of Why Torture Is Wrong…’s craziest plot twists.

The many changes of scene have necessitated a larger venue (the Stella Adler) than the Blank’s usual Second Stage, and Jeff G. Rack had designed an ingenious set that (though rather dingy for this caliber production) does quickly morph into multiple locales, including a great surprise reveal of Leonard’s mysterious “butterfly collection” room.  R. Christopher Stokes lighting and Michael O’Hara’s props are both first-rate, and Warren Davis’ sound design features clever uses of “Close To You,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  Michael Mullen’s costumes are, as always, a treat, including this time some very loose panties, a bevy of identical (except for the color) Luella frocks, and some imaginative big-busted Hooters waitress gear.

As dark as Why Torture Is Wrong … can get (and that’s pretty dark indeed), playwright Durang ultimately proves himself a romantic of the first order. Some may feel the ending is an easy (and even unfair) way out of the hole he’s dug himself into.  Not this reviewer.  I loved every second of the last five or ten minutes every bit as much as the two hours or so that preceded.  Delightfully original, Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is just what doctor ordered for Huffington Post readers in the mood for an fresh-from-the-headlines evening of theater … and gazillion laughs to boot. 

The Blank Theatre Company, Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
February 11. 2010
                                                                                             Photos: Rick Baumgartner

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