Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

If the title sounds like a more straightforwardly lefty answer to a Stephen Colbert think-piece, that's pretty much what the play devolves into after an exhilarating start.

Zamir - Amir Arison Felicity - Laura Benanti Luella - Kristine Nielsen Leonard - Richard Poe Voice - David Aaron Baker Rev. Mike - John Pankow Hildegarde - Audrie Neenan

To enter Christopher Durang’s official website, the user is instructed to “Click Liv Ullmann having a nervous breakdown.” That image of the Ingmar Bergman muse, frozen in a Munch-like scream, is as good a key as any to the playwright’s absurd humor, which has scarcely mellowed in the 30-plus years since he was first produced. It also illustrates his fascination with strung-out head cases, of which there’s a fresh handful in “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” But while Durang hits his mark in the familiar territory of domestic dysfunction, his political wit is less incisive, yielding a comedy of diminishing returns.

If the title sounds like a more straightforwardly lefty answer to a Stephen Colbert think-piece, that’s pretty much what the play devolves into after an exhilarating start. As much as they are still a part of our reality, red-alert paranoia over radical Islam, and a Cheney-style shadow government organization willing to lop off fingers and ears to extract a confession feel like yesterday’s satirical targets. But that’s not to say there are no laughs.

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Perhaps the most unexpected of them come from designer David Korins’ ingenious revolving set, so perfectly attuned to the claustrophobic warped reality of Durang’s world. Even scene changes are a delight, with the meticulously designed multiple compartments flying by like a spinning zoetrope, often still inhabited by the play’s characters.

Providing the closest thing to a voice of reason in an ensemble of folks flirting with insanity, Laura Benanti brings a charming light touch and dauntless determination to Felicity, who finds herself in an awkward spot. Waking up in a hotel room after an intoxicated night of wild sex, she’s alarmed to learn she’s now married to Zamir (Amir Arison), a smug lover-boy she met at Hooters. Despite his Middle-Eastern appearance and the occasional remark about burkas and arranged marriages, Zamir insists he’s Irish. But Felicity begins to suspect the unemployed, potentially violent stranger may be a terrorist who slipped her a date-rape drug.

After her suggestion of an annulment brings out her new husband’s menacing side, Felicity takes Zamir to suburban New Jersey to meet her parents. Her free-associating mother Luella (Kristine Nielsen) smiles and makes nice with the guest, while her rabidly right-wing father Leonard (Richard Poe) pulls a gun on him over French toast in their sitcom-cute kitchen nook.

Demarcating the action with bursts of Mark Bennett’s demented film noir music, director Nicholas Martin zips through the set-up with infectious assurance as Durang sketches out another of his idiosyncratic family units of more-or-less functioning nuts.

Benanti is especially winning as she battles to have a linear conversation with her verbally incontinent mother, or quizzes her father about the mysterious butterfly collection that keeps him forever busy in a locked room upstairs. Poe is hilarious as a gruff cartoon bigot, napalming squirrels, reminiscing over Vietnam carnage or ranting about “cowardly liberals like our daughter — and that damn Jane Fonda.”

Durang injects amusing digs at his own profession — notably at the Brit playwrights who dominate Broadway — via Luella’s love of the theater. Her accounts of the suicides of bridge-club acquaintances during “The Coast of Utopia” and “Faith Healer” are a hoot, as is her mounting hysteria as she contemplates the Terri Schiavo case. We’ve seen her bag of tics before, but frequent Durang collaborator Nielsen is the most comfortable of the cast at traveling the playwright’s loopy wavelength; the dithery lunacy she brings to the admiration of a flower arrangement or miming the action of “Les Miserables” is priceless.

As the plotting becomes more complex, however, and the fourth wall comes down, the play gradually slides off the rails, its laughs growing more strained.

In the time-honored screwball fashion of misunderstandings run riot, talk of “Big Bang,” a multicity orgy opus for which minister-cum-pornographic filmmaker Rev. Mike (John Pankow) has recruited Zamir, leads Leonard to suspect a terrorist attack. As Hildegarde, his enamored fellow operative in a covert government unit, Audrie Neenan has funny moments; she’s a kind of Margaret Thatcher-meets-Mary Wickes, whose rogue panties are attributed to a Chinese elastic conspiracy. But her character and Pankow’s are underserved by thin sketch material that can’t support the escalating chaos.

It’s also hard to feel concern over Zamir’s victimization when the character’s ugly outbursts of threatening behavior make him a hostile presence from the start, and Arison, channeling too much Ben Stiller, is mostly one-note abrasive.

In his best plays, Durang peels back the wacky exteriors to show the sorrowful depths beneath his characters, but no such surgery takes place here. Instead, he resorts to not especially clever metatheatrics and overuse of mock voiceovers (by David Aaron Baker) before handing the reins to an exasperated Felicity, who steps out of character to reshape the outcome. But at that point, the play just fizzles into ineffectual whimsy.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

Public Theater/Newman; 299 seats; $70 top

Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Christopher Durang. Directed by Nicholas Martin.

Creative: Sets, David Korins; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Ben Stanton; original music, Mark Bennett; sound, Drew Levy; production stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus. Opened April 6, 2009. Reviewed April 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast: Zamir - Amir Arison Felicity - Laura Benanti Luella - Kristine Nielsen Leonard - Richard Poe Voice - David Aaron Baker Rev. Mike - John Pankow Hildegarde - Audrie Neenan

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