Kurt Vonnegut once ruefully admitted that writing antiwar novels is about as effective as writing anti-glacier novels. If that’s true, imagine the futility of creating an antiwar play. (A hundredth of the audience, plus expensive tickets!) Christopher Durang knows this, I think, and in his witty and sharp Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, now at the Public, he all but admits that there’s only so much a playwright can do. As this absurdist farce develops, the characters gradually turn paranoid and anxious, with the plot veering close to bloodshed more than once—and all the while, a ditzy mom figure keeps wondering aloud whether anyone else onstage is a theater fan, and repeatedly expressing her love for Wicked. She’s there to point out that just because you go to the theater doesn’t mean you’re definitely more evolved than everyone else.
If it’s not going to change the world, Why Torture Is Wrong can at least try to make a dent in it, and Durang gets a lot of mileage out of the twin streams of humor and menace that run through his complicated script. Its loop-de-loops don’t lend themselves to a recap, and I won’t try to offer one; suffice it to say that a young woman (Laura Benanti) finds herself unexpectedly involved with a swarthy-looking guy, and nervously muses out loud to her parents that he might have unsavory political ideas. Things snowball from there, and before long we find ourselves laughing out loud at a man getting beaten up in a safe room full of nasty-looking weapons.
The cast, top to bottom, is filled with serious theater people, which means the voices and jokes are big and broad, in the best possible way. (You’d have a hard time finding larger stage presences than Richard Poe and Kristine Nielsen, who play the girl’s parents.) It’s also enhanced by highly effective staging: Director Nicholas Martin and especially set designer David Korins have managed to put on a multicharacter farce in a multistory house without a night of slamming doors. I suspect it’s also the first play at the Public to list “Hooters Consultant” in the program. (Like I say, the script goes off in quite a few directions.)
There is one danger to writing a play like this, and that is its specificity. A number of topical references, especially to John Yoo and his definition of torture, are going to severely limit its shelf life. (It’s going to become a period piece pretty fast, as Yoo becomes the Lieutenant William Calley of our time.) But maybe that’s okay; if the Bush administration’s excesses are becoming old news, that means we’re on our way out of a very dark place. The audience’s peals of laughter here may come largely from relief.