The United States is at a crossroads. Terrorists lurk around every corner, a shadow government pulls the country’s strings in secret, and the Church has been invaded by sleazy smut peddlers. That is, according to Christopher Durang.
In their lively production of the playwright’s deliriously funny satire Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, American Theater Ensemble leads the audience through a dark, alternate America, where the only sure things are a stiff drink and the Second Amendment.
Drawing on Durang’s childhood in a home divided by alcoholism and argument, the play centers on the dysfunctional family of put-upon protagonist Felicity. Felicity’s new husband Zamir has a terrible temper and no job. Her scatterbrained mother Luella spends most of her time inside her memories of favorite Broadway plays, in order to escape the drudgery of life with thoughtless husband Leonard. While not berating his wife, Leonard, an ex CIA man, spends hours tending his mysterious “butterfly collection” and arranging secret meetings with people known only by code names. This fractured household proves fertile ground for the shocking events and gut busting humor that unfold as the play gains steam.
The show’s comedy runs on Durang’s exploitation of familiar archetypes, and the game cast digs into the warped slate of characters with gleeful enthusiasm. As Luella, Charlotte Akin delivers a riveting turn as a perfect mother and housewife slowly unraveling before the audience’s eyes; the fun comes from predicting her next meltdown or Broadway daydream. Sarah Holt nearly steals the show with her manic rendition of loopy shadow government operative Hildegard. Her hilarious and frequent wardrobe malfunctions are funnier each time she appears onstage. Jeff Baker’s veteran comic timing serves him well in a surprisingly nuanced role as paranoid patriot Leonard, and Steve Lebens ably maintains a difficult balance of creepy and endearing as preacher/pornographer Reverend Mike. Heather Whitpan, Mikael Johnson and Joseph Thornhill round out the talented group with spirited performances of their own.
The visual design adheres to the black box aesthetic, eschewing lavish design in favor of simple black flats and set pieces. The characters’ manic activity is framed by this void, leaving much to the audience’s imagination. While a bit more color and detail would certainly improve the overall production, the spartan design is understandable given AET’s commitment to making low cost theater accessible to people of any economic level. [Tickets are $8.]
This riotous meditation on contemporary American culture leaves no stone unturned. From marriage, religion, and morality to gun rights, partisan politics, and the war on terror, there’s plenty for Washington audiences to digest. The poignant closing scene elevates the production from humorous commentary to artful reflection, grounding the preceding tongue in cheek jokes and physical humor with refreshing emotion and grace.
Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Ann Fraistat
Produced by American Ensemble Theater
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermission
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper