Why Torture Is A Bad Play Except For The People Who Act In It

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTOIf you really want to see how talented the current crop of Yale School of Drama students are, you should see them take this lousy script by Christopher Durang and turn it into something far better than it deserves.

The opening shot (and yes, there are guns in it) of this year’s Yale Summer Cabaret season is Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them—an unwieldy, unimaginatively wacky comedy by Christopher Durang about aggression.

The play begins with a drunken hook-up to end all drunken hook-ups. Suffice to say that the second scene has the young woman in the encounter, tellingly named Felicity, introducing her oblivious, addle-minded mother and quick-triggered militaristic father to her brand new fiancé Zamir, a young man of uncertain means, morals and ethnicity. Felicity’s father insists that Zamir looks like a terrorist; Zamir insists he’s Irish.

Sounds funny enough for a summer night, but what may begin promisingly is soon torn asunder by endless useless digressions, a mind-numbing number of in-jokes that will only appeal to bitter old New York theatergoers, and an utter mess of an ending that aggravates far more than it amuses. As for purported social satire, so many playwrights (and TV writers) do this sort of thing much better these days. All the Durang cliches are here: loud noises, crazy people, bloody injuries, bullying, humor at the expense of women and minorities and religious groups… What’s missing is a point. It’s several hours of fighting and spying, with a tacked-on, poorly argued coda about how maybe we shouldn’t fight and spy so much.

What director Jessica Holt and the gung-ho seven-member cast at the Yale Summer Cabaret do with this lamentable farce is… whatever they can do to save it.

They make the thin plot seem more portentous and worldly than it actually is. They make the jokes funnier than they are. They exaggerate comically, to punch the punchlines but also to distract from weaknesses in the plot. They mug. They strut. They dance. They cock their eyebrows. Above all else, they do funny voices.

They ride along Durang’s careening turns capably. But they’re better than that. They create subtleties where there were none. They find a pace and rhythm. They’re a joy to watch.

The actors are so assured, so endearing, so adventurous, that they’re soon receiving laughs for scene changes and exits. They’re winning; Durang’s play is not.

It doesn’t help that the Cabaret venue isn’t well fitted for comedy in the first place. The ceilings are low and there are shadowy corners; it’s hard to make the place seem bright and open. On opening night, it was also pretty warm in that basement. I was fighting off drowsiness towards the end of the first half, which is the only good thing I can say about Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them’s running length—two and a half hours of faux-satiric silliness is way too long, but at least you can use the intermission to freshen up and splash cold water on your face.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTOSo those actors have far more to do with creating this fierce, frenzied, fun-loving environment than either Durang’s script or the Cabaret locale.

The performers truly are marvelous. You just have to have seen Celeste Arias’ sensational turn in the recent Yale Carlotta Festival production of Thunderbodies to appreciate the slapstick she can brilliantly wrest from sexually suggestive situations. Here, she turns a loose pair of underpants into a comic prop as potent as Charlie Chaplin’s walking stick.

Similiarly, Maura Hooper was a revelation as a revitalized St. Joan of Arc in Ryan Campbell’s A New Saint for a New World at the Yale Cabaret this past April. That was a show that started with an absurd comic situation and a lengthy ditzy monologue, only to descend into deep philosophical and apocalyptical drama. In Why Torture is Wrong…, Hooper pulls off that same trick of being overtly comic—in a consistent, convulsively funny upper class accent that blends Katherine Hepburn and Billie Burke—while making sure some humanity and vulnerability are maintained.

Likewise, the heroine of the show, Felicity, is played by Ariana Venturi with a canny mix of defensiveness and spitefulness. She grits her teeth a lot, but sometimes it’s exasperation and sometimes it’s fortitude.

The whole seven-person cast takes much better care of these characters than Durang does. His script transitions awkwardly from reckless gags to tenuous points about modern morality and warfare. Lines about 9/11, domestic abuse and of course torture fall awkwardly in between the bad-taste comedy and the good-sense posturing. There are also numerous maddening situations where Durang sets up violent confrontations only to let them peter out illogically while he inserts one vapid one-liner after another.

Yet somehow these accomplished thespians make it work. During a scene change, a wall-hanging meant to resemble a window abruptly fell right near the actresses that were about to start the scene. Both of the performers, without hesitation, still in the dark before the lights came up on the scene, reacted completely in character. Maura Hooper looked skyward as if it was raining. Ariana Venturi gave another of her annoyed quizzical expressions. The improvisations had the audience in hysterics. As a man sitting behind me in the audience said loudly during the applause, “That’s how they do it at Yale. That’s how they do it at Yale.”

A fine, if confounding, start for what it likely to be a summer of surprises in that little basement space at 217 Park St.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTOThe Yale Summer Cabaret is mostly made up of current YSD students, but it differs from the school-year Yale Cabaret and other academic projects. The shows run longer, for one thing—two weeks. There’s a repertory company of 13 actors, seven of whom are in Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them. There are two directors for the entire five-show season: Jessica Holt directs the two with the longest titles (Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them and We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915), Luke Harlan will do A Map of Virtue and Middletown, and both will work on the new-short-works compendium Summer Shorts: A Festival of New Voices.

For information on how to attend the Yale Summer Cabaret show, visit the website or call (203) 432-1566.

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