Custom Made Theatre has decided to celebrate Obama's second term by producing Christopher Durang's anti-George-Bush play from 2009, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. Well, if there's one surefire way to stir up a San Francisco audience, it's by producing an anti-Dubya play that paints its right-wing characters as ludicrous cartoons — indeed, one of them speaks in Looney Tunes voices.
We in the theater community refer to the play casually as Torture (which makes for some odd-sounding conversations — over the last few months, my friend Claire Rice, who directed this production, regularly said things like "I'm busy with Torture all weekend") or maybe by the first half of its lengthy title. However, I responded to the play not for its satire of the War on Terror, but more for what's suggested by the second half of its title, The People Who Love Them. Walking into the theater, I didn't think the title made much sense (and the grammar is definitely odd), but now I think it was a perfect choice on Durang's part. Because the play implies that we live in a world where men do the torturing and women fall in love with them anyway. It's a bleak vision, even for Durang, whose comedy has always rested on a foundation of darkness and dread.
The play begins when a young woman, Felicity (played by Eden Neuendorf in Custom Made's production), wakes up after a drunken night on the town to discover that she's married to Zamir (Sal Mattos), who is possibly a terrorist and definitely a nasty piece of work. Felicity runs to her parents for help, but her mother Luella (Jennie Brick) is scatterbrained and ineffectual, and her father Leonard (Paul Stout) is a blustering right-winger with a hair-trigger temper. The situation steadily disintegrates until Zamir is held hostage in Leonard's secret torture lair upstairs. It's all fun and games until someone loses a finger?
Felicity's parents are so dysfunctional that it's a wonder that such a normal young woman came from such a messed-up background. At first, Luella seems like a typical Durang ditz; in the original New York production, she was played by Kristine Nielsen, who's made a specialty of such roles. Try to have a serious conversation with Luella, and she'll start chattering about the plays she's seen recently. But this isn't just a way for Durang to shoehorn in all his witty quips and opinions about American theater. Instead, in Jennie Brick's excellent performance, it becomes clear that Luella is a desperately unhappy woman who spends all her free time going to the theater in order to escape her troubled marriage. And yet, despite Leonard's blind bloodlust, another character, Hildegarde (Teri Whipple), has a crush on him. And despite Felicity's mistreatment at the hands of Zamir, and her father's insanity, her instinct is to try to reconcile the two men, rather than to run as fast as she can from what is obviously a bad situation. As a woman, she's been socialized to be a peacemaker — and as her name "Felicity" implies, she's an optimist who seeks a happy ending.
Leonard and Zamir keep their women subservient by means of threats, coercion, and violence. Meanwhile, Reverend Mike (Jonathon Brooks) initially comes off as one of the saner characters onstage — yes, even though he's a minister who moonlights as a hardcore porn producer. But when Mike urges Felicity to forgive Zamir in the name of Christian charity, I found him just as hateful as the other men in the play. Religion, Durang implies, is just one more tool that the patriarchy uses to oppress women.
In the world of this play, then, men are torturers, women are their Stockholm-syndrome-besotted victims, and nothing can end well. Nonetheless, Durang constructs an ending in which Felicity, with the help of the play's omniscient Narrator (Christopher P. Kelly), turns back the clock and tries to rewrite the story. In an interview with the Blank Theater, Durang stated, "As I was writing the play, Felicity and I became one — we BOTH didn't want the play to spiral down into darkness that the actual torture seemed to necessitate dramatically. She and I wanted the play to end differently. In my 20s, I was more cynical/despairing (even though I still wrote comically), but I often sent audiences home with rather dark last moments. After a while, though, I don't want to send the audience home bummed out or distressed... I want to see what's hopeful."
I wasn't sure what to make of this ending choice when I saw the play. On the one hand, it felt like a simplistic cop-out: unwilling to face up to the darkest implications of the situation that he constructed, Durang quickly tagged a happy ending onto the play. On the other hand, the ending is deeply disturbing: Felicity (and Durang) can think of no way out of her predicament that doesn't involve rewriting the laws of space, time, and human behavior. And that might be the most terrifying thing of all.
Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is playing at the Custom Made Theatre through February 17. Disclosure: I received a press comp to this show.