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Christopher Durang’s hit new play Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them sparkles with classic Durang wit and satirizes with the force Durang possesses at his best, but also reveals troubling limits to how our theatre seems to be able to contemplate violence. Durang understands that torture involves a set of performance relations and makes use of many theatrical elements, but the play first insists on the real violence at the heart of that performance and then turns away from it. Along the way, Why Torture is Wrong… provides a clear example of an ostensibly anti-torture work that fails to account for a broader context of human violence.

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I should preface this by noting that I am a huge Durang fan, and I thoroughly loved this production, directed with pell-mell energy and great accuracy by Nicholas Martin at The Public Theater (among the production’s many assets is the most effective multi-set revolving stage I’ve ever seen, designed by David Korins, brilliantly exploited by Martin’s direction and treated like a carnival ride by the fantastic cast). This is part review and part something else, since it’s on its way into a piece about torture, rape and performance. Also, what follows is long, and contains, as they say, spoilers.

At lights up we find Felicity, a quick but somewhat dazzled young woman (a bit like a smarter version of Bette, from The Marriage of Bette and Boo), waking in a hotel bed next to Zamir, a charismatically crazy man whom she simply does not know. It seems they have been married after a night of drunken carousing, but Felicity remembers none of it. Felicity prepares to leave and suggests they have the marriage annulled, whereupon Zamir erupts in anger, warning her that he “has a temper” and that he can become violent: “it’s a flaw in my character, but all the women in my family are dead.” This threat is played for laughs, and Durang further buffers the violence by having Zamir insist that his name is actually Irish. (Zamir is played effectively, even underplayed, by Amir Arison, and Felicity by the exceptionally quick and precise Laura Benanti).

Felicity soon learns more than she’d like to about Zamir, who appears to be a petty criminal and occasional drug dealer, but who talks big about making mysterious night-time deliveries in a van, and uncovering money from a hole in the ground. The situation escalates and becomes full of unlikely complications (well, they’re likely in a Durang play). Felicity takes Zamir to meet her parents. Her mother, Luella (the brilliant and occasionally scene-stealing Kristine Nielson) is a classic Durang airhead, oblivious one moment but revealing a keen insight into how the world works the next. Her father, Leonard (the bombastic if occasionally predictable Richard Poe), turns out to be at the center of a right-wing cabal, a secret shadow government. This group includes the bumbling Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan) who can’t keep her panties from falling to her ankles (the character at one point seems to be a Harriet Myers parody), and an operative named “Loony Tunes” who is so-called because he has, it is explained, a form of Tourette’s Syndrome that causes him to express himself only in uncontrollable bursts of dialog and sound effects from Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. This mix allows Durang, once he’s convoluted the plot to his (and our) liking, to create a scene in which Zamir, mistakenly believed to be at the center of a terrorist plot when he’s actually only planning to participate in the making of a porn film called “Big Bang,” is tied to a chair about to be tortured by a ridiculous gang of enthusiastic defenders of the nation. It’s both a sharp attack on the ludicrous side of the Bush administration and a send up, I think, of zany/scary violence comedies from Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs to the plays of Martin McDonagh.

Having brought his comedy to the point that Zamir’s severed ear and fingers are being brought into the living room wrapped in a bloody towel, Durang would seem to have few narrative options. He’s clearly not interested in letting the comedy sour. His choice to construct a fantasy in which the past is re-written to avoid this violence produces a hilarious resolution of the plot. I’m tempted to say that it’s also unsatisfying, since it essentially avoids dealing with the reality of violence and the politics that thrive on it, but that would do the play short shrift. It’s the world the play turns away from, arguably, that is so deeply unsettling. When she intervenes to rescue Zamir from her father, Felicity insists on un-making the horrible world the play has spun into. She literally stops the show and instructs the actors to go back in time, eventually to the night of her fateful meeting with Zamir. The scene takes place in a hilariously re-imagined Hooters, where the restaurant chain’s waitresses still have their trademark huge breasts on display, but which has been made over into an elegant night club with ballroom dancing and crooning (by David Aaron Baker, who also plays Loony Tunes and the waiter).

The choice for a fantasy revision of history is not itself the problem with the play—arguably it’s a fantasy with a lot of currency in the US at the moment. But what Durang/Felicity revises is precisely not the politics the play attacks, but rather the behaviors of Felicity and Zamir. Rather than have Felicity rewrite her father’s character (or even better, the social conditions from which he arises), Durang replays their first (and last) date at Hooters. Felicity polices Zamir’s behavior, seeking to craft a relationship that she wants to be in, attempting to transform Zamir into someone safe, and safe from the violence of the national security state. This happens on the way to creating an ironic tableau of happy heterosexuality, much like the wedding-cake effect of Marriage of Bette and Boo.

So the problem of right-wing conspiracy is to be reformed by better hetero dating? By keeping our heads down? By reforming the ethnic other away from (downplayed) sexual violence? For Zamir is not just a drifter/looser small-time hood who talks big and is conflicted about his religious and ethnic identity. He’s also a rapist.

Durang’s characterization of Zamir is, on the one hand, an interesting one, in that he refuses to construct an “innocent” victim at the center of this tale of torture by “mistake.” Both the Hollywood film Rendition and the David Gow play Arrivals (inspired by the appalling case of Canadian engineer Maher Arar, kidnapped in transit in New York and rendered to torture in Syria) construct a powerless, some might say feminized, victim of mistaken identity. This arguably highlights the brutality of their rendition to torture, but perhaps also glosses over the question of whether such violence would be somehow less wrong if applied to characters more threatening and less appealing. Why Torture Is Wrong… does not construct Zamir as a “feminized” innocent. Rather, he is sexually dangerous, perhaps meant to be even sexily dangerous. For most of the play, Felicity seems actually immune to the charms of this bad boy, and so when she decides to rescue Zamir from her father’s clutches, she offers a clear example of the moral choice to defend someone disliked, even threatening, from unjust treatment.

Durang goes so far as to build into Zamir the stereotype of the bullying, sexist Muslim male, who threatens her with three burkas (“one black, the other, black, and the third one….black!”). At the same time he repeatedly deflates this with Zamir’s hedonism and occasional genuine self-awareness and attempted understanding of Felicity. While Zamir is a more dramatically interesting foil to the hyperbolically masculine father because he is aggressive rather than passive or stoic, he is also a more complicated character than the father, who is a hilarious but ultimately predictable type, an inflatable Dick Cheney caricature.

On the other hand, the play passes very lightly by the fact that Zamir is a rapist and Felicity the survivor of his assault. This treatment of sexual assault is all the more remarkable because it is far from necessary to the play. A Zamir who simply married Felicity while both were drunk and later turned out to be both violent and ethnically and temperamentally unsuited to her white bourgeois world could move the play forward every bit as effectively as one who, in the re-imagined Hooters scene, attempts to drug her with “roofies” (the “date-rape” drug Rohyphenol). In this (her?) fantasy of how the past should have played out, Felicity gently reprimands him and he gets her another drink. A measure of how lightly Durang considers rape is how unimportant it is to the plot—the play would function fine without it—and yet how giving it up is the basic pivot of the fantasy second second act.

At issue here is not that Zamir’s rape of Felicity (the “inciting incident” that has occurred before the first act begins) undermines the play’s treatment of torture. Indeed, paying attention to the rape actually strengthens the example Felicity sets, as noted above, when she defends him from her father (even bad people, rapists, do not “deserve” to be tortured). Nor is the problem, exactly, that Durang makes fun of rape. His oeuvre is full of “black humor” in which disease, disability, and especially the victimization of women is repeatedly played for laughs. What is striking here is that Durang does not even make fun of sexual violence—he simply uses it to set up the plot. To be sure, there is a creepy scene earlier in the play (that is, later in the timeline of the plot), in which Zamir drugs her again and is seen rubbing her body as the lights fade, but this moment is barely developed and feels like the one moment where Durang is at a loss dramaturgically. In this play, rape appears to be of so little consequence that it barely merits its own joke.

To sum up, it’s thrilling to watch Durang walk the tight-rope to bring the play hilariously to its disturbing climactic torture, but disturbing to see him settle so comfortably, not just into the safety net of fantasy, but a specific fantasy of retro heterosexuality. The humor is certainly queer, but in the end safely so. What’s more disappointing, to me, is that Durang misses the opportunity to think further about the connections between something like the state use of torture in an “emergency” and the practice of violence in everyday life.

Kristian Williams, in American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, argues strongly that rape itself is always torture, and that “the rape model” guides torture more generally. I’m still grappling with his argument, and his chapter on “The Centrality of Rape” (229-243) itself reveals an anxiety about respecting the complexities of the two terms. Still, I agree with Williams that the overlapping fields of rape and torture need to be thought through together. At a glance, it might appear to have nothing to do with Durang’s play, but Williams’ conclusion is what I was thinking about as I enthusiastically applauded all the excellent work on stage. It’s probably an analysis Durang would share, but it isn’t something he thought about through this play:

[I]n the context of state-sponsored torture […] rape is a technique, perhaps the ideal technique of coercion. But in the context of male supremacy overall, rape is itself a system of terrorism and torture. State-sponsored torture both uses rape as a technique and mirrors its overall terrorist strategy.

Kristian Williams, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press, 2006): 238.


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  1. […] first used a revised version of my earlier rant about Christopher Durang’s play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them to […]

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