Christopher Durang’s 2009 Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them is broadly satirical, expansively farcial, and increasingly self-referenial as it wears on. And wear it does. Director Ann Fraistrat has mustered a capable and frequently wonderful cast, but doesn’t throw enough coal in the boiler to make this unwieldy thing run at ideal speed. Even allowing for the production’s presumably modest budget, the set changes are clunky and protracted—simply turning the volume way, way up on the prerecorded songs that play over them would pump up the energy. As it is, we have too many opportunities to ponder how Durang’s justifiable rage over the boneheadedness and brutality of post-9/11 counterterrorism policy has resulted in a critique that often feels as cruel and careless as its targets. Call it the Gitmo approach to lampoonery: Durang doesn’t seem to mind if any innocents are caught up in his dragnet as long as he gets the bad guys, too.
Or maybe his point is that there are no innocents left in our country. Zamir, the hot-tempered, dubiously self-proclaimed Irishman to whom doe-eyed Felicity (a hardworking, affable Heather Whitpan) wakes up married in the opening scene, will become the victim of his father-in-law’s psychotic homeland-securing zeal. That doesn’t make Zamir a good guy. Mikael Johnson’s performance sure makes us like him, though—no small feat, given that he comes from the Rohyponol school of courtship. I suppose that still makes Zamir less of a sadist than Felicity’s pa, who is basically Jack Bauer—Keifer Sutherland’s hairshirted-but-ass-kicking-through-his-doubts terrorist-hunter from 24—aged another 20 years and stripped of his infallibility. Jeff Baker is hysterical in the part, as is Steve Lebens as a blissed-out man of the cloth who dabbles in porn films on the side. He’s actually the conscience of the piece.
I don’t know what that makes Charlotte Akin as Luella, Felicity’s Stepford mom, whom we never see without a pair of dishwashing gloves matched to her dress, which she matches to her mood. We also get Joe Thornhill as a torturer who spouts impressions of Looney Tunes characters while going about his grim duties. Thornhill is funny enough in the part that you can overlook what I presume to be Durang’s point about how we’re conditioned to laugh at violence from infancy. Thornhill pulls double duty as the narrator, who has to do most of the heavy lifting of actually ending the play once Durang has written himself into a corner.
These players and these characters are all so delightful you wish you could transplant them right out this thing into a more hospitable climate. Of course, you need a scalpel to perform surgery. Durang only brought his chainsaw.