Christopher Durang, master of neurotic urban self-involvement, brings his A game and A+ notion of citizenship to “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” a title whose grammatical wackiness is of a piece with the loopy take on America in global terrorism’s clutches. Daniel Henning’s L.A. premiere production for the Blank Theater Company falls short in its central characters, but otherwise admirably embodies the distinctive Durangian universe to keep an audience laughing in the playhouse and thinking on its way home.
Felicity (Rhea Seehorn), one of the author’s signature earnest but self-doubting heroines, groggily awakens to discover herself wed to the swarthy stranger lying beside her. Zamir (Sunil Malhotra) proves evasive about his livelihood and background and how they came to be married at Hooters, but he’s emphatic about his ethnicity: “I’m Irish!” he cries.
Yet any mention of annulment sets off an explosion, with Felicity fearing he’d be more likely to pick up a scimitar than a shillelagh. Could Zamir be … a terrorist? Investigating her suspicions leads to a firestorm involving her family, peculiar hangers-on and representatives of America’s “shadow government,” ever ready with thumbscrews and waterboards at hand.
Because “Why Torture … ” premiered in 2009, the rehashing and bashing of Bush Administration tropes feels five or six years too late. (Again with the “freedom fries”?) Where it shines, though — and stands apart from most American political drama — is in its curiosity about the psychology of terrorism.
Durang’s sights are set not just on the obvious target of far-right conspiracy loons, but on the ways in which we’ve all begun to look at the world through green-, yellow- or orange-colored glasses — depending on the day’s threat level. The nuttier the farce escalates — a porno called “The Big Bang” is suspected as code for an attack to make 9/11 look like a fireworks display — the more Durang challenges us to rebel against prejudice and fatalism while remaining true to core values. And even those who reject his formula as romantic or fatally naive will find it fascinating to consider the questions he raises.
The supporting players are wholly conversant with the author’s famously deadpan style. As Felicity’s ultrapatriotic dad, Mike Genovese slips from genial suspicion into raging paranoia without commenting on any irony, just as daffy Catherine Hicks takes the incessant descent of her panties in stride during her counterterrorist surveillance.
Durang stand-in Alec Mapa is a genial emcee, while Nicholas Brendon’s dazed and confused Reverend Mike blends George Carlin’s hippy-dippy weatherman with wonderment all his own. Above all, Christine Estabrook as Felicity’s mom is hilarious when her inner torment is masked by gracious restraint; when it bursts the floodgates, she’s funnier still.
By contrast, Henning encourages Seehorn to mug, pout and indicate her way through her role’s complex mine field. Instead of striving to maintain control over a world spinning off its axis, she plays superficial frustration in order to “be funny.” Meanwhile, Malhotra is stuck in stock macho-bully naturalism more “Jersey Shore” than Gaza Strip and without a trace of menace. Their scenes lack authenticity, and the production sags accordingly.