Trigger Happy: Review of New Theatre’s Why Torture is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them
There is a lot going on in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (2009). On the one hand it is a hilarious comedy, almost absurd in nature. On the other it is a scathing commentary on the prevalence of violence embedded in our culture.
The play opens with Felicity and Zamir waking up in a cheap hotel; they are strangers who, after a wild alcohol fueled night ended up married. Zamir (he claims it’s an Irish name) is something of a loose cannon. He’s got a short fuse, a shady past and is quick to make physical threats. Felicity would quite like an annulment, but Zamir won’t have a bar of it. Instead he forces her to introduce him to her parents: the meek put upon housewife, Luella and her gun-wielding, squirrel-incinerating father, Leonard who actually turns out to be part of an underground shadow government. Things do not go well. In fact, within seconds Leonard is threatening to shoot Zamir, who in turn is threatening to blow up the house. Things escalate from this point.
This play is dealing with some pretty weighty issues, and in that regard it is very ambitious. It isn’t just tackling one form of violence, its tackling just about all of them: violence against women, torture, aggression as a criterion for masculinity, even cartoon violence. And herein lays the problem: attempting to engage with too many facets has left the piece feeling conceptually messy. Durang has tried to tackle them simultaneously, and they just haven’t meshed. Regrettably, the play also loses sight of the story it began with, as it descends further and further into absurdity with an increasing level of meta-theatricality. The original plot is all but forgotten by the second act as Durang gets bogged down in his ‘message’. As a result, the production starts to feel preachy and overly reliant on gimmicks (which may have been thrown in to distract us from the fact that the play has lost track). This is certainly a shame as there is some fine performances on display.
Even so, a piece such as this tends to force the cast’s hand a little – they often have no acting choice other than the highly presentational style in which the show is written. Whilst it provides great moments of hilarity, it is somewhat overdrawn and becomes slightly frustrating to watch.
Ainslie McGlynn suffered in this way as Felicity, our flustered heroine. The pace is quick and occasionally overwhelming for McGlynn though she is obviously a talented comedic actress with natural flair and timing. Her performance attempts to anchor the show though it just misses the mark in the final and ‘crucial to the message’ scene (perhaps more of a writing fault however).
Terry Karabelas plays Zamir, our sexist, violent, ne’er-do-well, pseudo-Irish leading man. Karabelas gives Zamir a wild temper though sometimes his outbursts come left of field. Karabelas is similarly suited to comedy though one suspects he is even stronger dramatically – there is a subtle gentleness and genuine quality that illuminates his performance.
One of the strongest performances of the night was produced by Alice Livingstone as Luella, the rather deranged mother of Felicity and theatre enthusiast. Livingstone was gifted with some cracking one-liners and side splitting streams of consciousness that largely had the audience rolling in the aisles. Yet this is not to sell Livingstone short – she is as fabulous as she is hilarious. Think a cross between Edina’s Mother in Ab Fab and Ruth Cracknell’s Maggie in Mother and Son.
Livingstone’s on stage other half, Leonard, is played by Peter Astridge to a comic yet somewhat estranged effect. Leonard is a crazed gun wielding Republican – a barely functioning psychopath with more patriotism then you could shake a stick at. Whilst in great physical form (like really – nicely done), Astridge’s vocal choice was at times breathless or inaudibly husky. The stylistic choice was certainly a good one, but not always well executed for it stunted the dialogue’s flow.
Annie Schofield put in a worthy performance as the Voice and Looney Tunes; she had great vocal control and the confidence of a musical theatre star. Ryan Gibson was wonderful fun as Reverend Mike, itinerant minister and porn producer extraordinaire whilst Romy Bartz worked tirelessly (and often thanklessly) in the role of Hildegrade, spending most of the evening with her panties around her ankles (she certainly put the degrade in Hildegrade).
There is certainly some excellent writing in this piece, a good deal of which is absolutely hilarious though helped along on opening night by a generally receptive audience. Ultimately though, the play is too earnest and intently so, forgetting that the core ingredient of good theatre is a good story.
Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is playing at the New Theatre until the 28th of June. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/whats-on/season-2014/why-torture-is-wrong-and-the-people-who-love-them/