Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

Well-crafted Play Fails to Convince
By Lauren Yarger
Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them playing Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, is a clever play. It contains witty dialogue, zany characters and interesting structure. It just isn’t clever enough to find a way to convince us to enter a world where we can take lightly and laugh at torture, abuse of women and threats against our nation.

Following a night of drunkenness, Felicity (Laura Benanti) awakes in a hotel to find herself in bed with and married to a complete stranger named Zamir (Amir Arison). He isn’t forthcoming with much information about himself, but he tells her he makes a living in dangerous and illegal ways. Reverend Mike (John Pankow), who makes pornographic films on the side, married them, he tells her, and he has a certificate written on a menu from Hooters to prove it.

When Felicity, who suspects she might have been given a date-rape drug, suggests that they get an annulment, Zamir reacts angrily and threatens her with violence. He suggests instead, that she introduce him to her parents, whom Zamir expects to buy them a house and set him up in business. She agrees, and it’s right here, that resistance into Durang’s world which requires us to abandon reason and reality begins.

When she can get a word in edgewise during the unending talk of theater by her mother, Luella (played to the height of loony glory by Kristine Nielsen), Felicity confesses she thinks Zamir drugged her and that he might be a terrorist, despite his constant assurances that his name is Irish. When her father, Leonard (Richard Poe), is introduced to his new son-in-law, he pulls out a gun on Zamir who threatens to blow up the house by pushing a button on his cell phone. The situation is diffused by Luella’s suggestion that they have French toast instead. They agree and later, when Felicity takes Zamir back to her apartment despite his continued threats of phyical violence against her, she downs another drug-laced drink he prepares for her (is she really this stupid?) and Zamir gropes her as she falls unconscious.

Leonard, it turns out, isn’t the mild, meek butterfly collector he has shown his family. He’s really a spy in a shadow government of the United States and he enlists the help of operative Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan), who has more than a patriotic interest in working with Leonard and who for some reason keeps losing her underwear (they visually drop repeatedly) and walks around with them between her ankles throughout the show. Also assisting Leonard is Looney Tunes (David Aaron Baker), an agent with a form of Tourette’s Syndrome that causes him to impersonate cartoon characters.

When he isn’t slamming Jane Fonda for her pro-North Vietnam stand during the war, bashing gays and liberals, or demeaning his wife, Leonard is plotting for a way to get information that will allow him to use “enhanced” interrogation methods on Zamir. Felicity, for some unknown reason, finds she cares about Zamir and sides with him when she suspects her father might be hurting him. Meanwhile, Luella continues to escape in her chatter about the theater, and the sarcastic and witty slams about Broadway shows and playwrights, all expertly enhanced by Nielsen’s fluttering, twitching, and stupid-looking smile, give the play its funniest moments. The highlight is David Korins’ set which revolves to reveal unending locations

Hildegard overhears Zamir and Reverend Mike discussing plans to film a porno flick called “The Big Bang,” and she mistakes them and the orgasmic “explosions” they anticipate in numerous US cities for a terrorist attack. This is the justification Leonard needs to employ torture methods to extract details of the plan.

Suddenly the characters step out of the play and discuss their displeasure with how things are going. Most of the second act is a rewind of the previous scenes as the characters try to find a “nicer” conclusion that will eliminate the need for torture.

Nicholas Martin directs an able cast. Benanti is very talented at delivering long passages of dialogue at break-neck speed and Nielsen certainly deserves her Outer Critics Circle nomination for featured actress in a play. Durang gets a nod for craft, but requiring us to abandon all reality and decency robs the sarcasm of its humor. I got it. I just couldn’t join him in such an unrealistic and unpleasant world.

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them plays through May 10. For information, visit

Christians might also like to know:
• Strong language
• Sexual activity
• God’s name taken in vain
• When Felicity tells her father Zamir has given her a date-rape drug, his first reaction is, “at least he has spunk.”
• A joke is made about pro-life Leonard being able to feel empathy for an unborn fetus, but not for a terrorist.
• A bizarre scene at Hooters includes props to enhance the busts of two of the actresses.
• Reverend Mike says he’s a “porn-again” Christian, that God created porn and that porn is OK because God created sex. “God watches it, why shouldn’t we?” he asks. He tells us he identified with the show The Vagina Monologues and that “different strokes for different folks” is one of the beatitudes. When asked how he could be a minister, Reverend Mike tells us he can because he’s a good person and counsels people and that Jesus wants us to forgive.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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