I was teaching a class on news reporting in 2002 when the Bush administration opened the prison at Guantánamo Bay and ruled that prisoners there would be designated enemy combatants. I asked my students if they knew what that implied. They weren't a particularly well-informed group, but they understood the new designation perfectly. Prisoners of war can't be tortured; there are laws about that. But enemy combatants can. And in the aftermath of 9/11, with jingoistic war cries filling the air, just about every student in the room thought torture was fine. Serious debate on torture had to wait until the media were willing to use the word — which to this day, many newspapers avoid, the New York Times having put itself (with much self-congratulation) through an intense journalistic debate on whether the interrogations should be described as "harsh" or "brutal."
Among those horrified by the Bush administration's program of renditions, secret prisons and waterboarding was playwright Christopher Durang, but it was some time before he dealt with these issues in his work. And when he did — in Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them — he did it in the only way he could: as a mocking, fantastical, absurdist, free-associating and, yes, insanely funny satire.
A young woman named Felicity wakes up next to a man she doesn't recognize. He turns out to be Zamir, who tells her they met and married the night before. But this isn't one of those cute sitcom predicaments. Zamir is strange. Periodically, he gets threatening. The word "roofies" crops up. And though Zamir claims to be Irish, he has a vaguely Middle Eastern accent. Felicity doesn't seem quite as thrown by all this as you and I would be, but she does want out, so she takes Zamir home to her parents in hope of counsel and support. But father Leonard is a crazed right-winger, and he soon identifies Zamir as a terrorist and puts a gun to his head. Unfazed, Zamir pulls out his cell phone and threatens to blow the place up. Mother Luella is an amiable dingbat who copes with her husband's ravings by escaping to the theater — where, she says, she can glimpse normal life. Luella's rambling discursions on Tom Stoppard, Tantalus, Wicked and Edith Bagnold's The Chalk Garden are among the evening's funniest sequences.
Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
Presented by Edge Theater Company through September 2, 9797 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, www.theeproject.org.
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There are three other characters: Reverend Mike, who also produces porn and who married Felicity and Zamir at Hooters; a fellow dubbed Voice, Narrator and Scooby Doo because he sometimes manifests as a disembodied voice, sometimes as a cartoon-obsessed torturer for the secret government he and Leonard believe they serve; and Hildegarde, whose effectiveness as an agent is compromised by her tendency to faint at violence. Also the fact that her panties keep sliding to her ankles.
The second act features a torture scene in Leonard's innocently named Butterfly Room, along with blood and severed fingers. Durang's mockery is uninhibited and full-frontal. Leonard, who once shot Halloween revelers wearing masks, weeps at the mere word "fetus" and insists that Luella's French toast be called "Freedom toast." The Justice Department's slimy memo indicating that "only pain equivalent to such harm as serious physical injury or organ failure constitutes torture" is quoted often. And at the mention of the comatose Terry Schiavo, Luella reveals her own desperation: "I mean, I'm functional and can eat and breathe on my own, and I don't find life 'precious.' Shut up! I find it terrifying."
Edge Theater Company lives up to its name in staging this brilliantly provocative play, but director Seth Rossman tends to pull his punches, and the production lacks a certain necessary ferocity. Samantha Provenzano is a calm, pleasing Felicity and Chuck Novatka a watchable and unexpectedly cuddly Zamir. Susan Rossman's Luella is properly chatty, and Michael Leopard makes for a convincing Leonard. The scene-stealer, however, is Pamela Mccreary as lively, pants-challenged Hildegarde.
You'd think this plot could go nowhere but down, but instead of careening into black — though comic — despair, Durang pulls back. His final scene suggests that people can redeem themselves — and perhaps, by analogy, that the entire Bush era could undergo a redo. And though the last lines are still dubious, they also reveal just a touch of hope.