Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Scott Dray.
Here is the thing about Christopher Durang plays: when done well, they can be very, very funny; it’s critical, though, to mine them for every ounce of humor you can find. When things start to fall flat, Durang’s trademark sense of absurdity doesn’t really work at all. And that is the problem I have with Eclipse Theatre’s final effort in its Durang year: despite some wonderful acting by all involved, Act One just isn’t particularly funny. And by the time there are some genuine laughs (not to mention a bizarre and fairly glorious twist in the narrative structure) in Act Two, the audience has tuned out. (In the case of the show I attended, some even departed at intermission.)
Longtime Eclipse member Steve Scott, who has done some fine work in the past, just does not seem ever to get a handle on this, one of Durang’s most unusual plays (which is saying something), and one of his weakest. Many times throughout the show, I found myself replaying moments just past with slightly different inflections or timing and realized how funny they might have been even though they had elicited little or nothing from the audience as delivered. Give Scott some credit for dealing well with some potentially clunky scene changes, but we came to a Durang play to laugh. Perhaps he would have been more successful with one of the author’s better works.
His actors certainly try their hardest, especially Elaine Carlson, whose take on the utterly vacuous (or is she?) Luella is consistently brilliant. Her repetitive, often bizarrely off-topic lines allow Carlson to showcase her own deft sense of comic timing despite what is happening around her. Tracey Green takes on the lead role of Luellen’s daughter Felicity, who finds herself stuck in an unwanted marriage to a foreigner who claims he is Irish but clearly is not after a drunken night in a Hooters. (This play was written during the Bush years, and the omnipresent distrust of all things Middle Eastern, while never overtly stated, is significant.) Unfortunately, until near the end when the structure of the play abruptly alters, Green is not called upon to do much more than act frantic and frightened. She handles that ending, which though intended to be instructive really is pretty ridiculous, very well, with far more subtleness than her character allows her to show in the earlier stages. Even her best efforts, though, cannot really make us care about Felicity’s fate.
Her new husband, Zamir, whom she suspects to be a terrorist, is played by Siddhartha Rajan, a newcomer to Eclipse. Rajan, like Green, finds himself trapped in a limited character for most of the show, and he cannot find enough variety to make up for Zamir’s egotistical, misogynistic, violent ravings. Zamir is one of the most unlikable characters I have watched lately, and Rajan really needed better guidance to help the comic potential to come out, but he doesn’t seem to have found it. Another unlikable, one-note character is Patrick Thornton’s Leonard. Married to Luellen, he is essentially all righteous indignation in service of a “shadow government” that is allegedly working to keep America safe; like the guns he is so fond of, he seems ready to go off at any second. With no nuance written into the character, Thornton just doesn’t have a lot to deal with here. Like most of the cast, his character is stuck somewhere between absurdity and realism, and he does not seem sure which way to take him.
That’s probably why Carlson’s Luellen works so well: she is a character written to be completely absurd but also provided enough of an undercurrent to make her absurdity understandable and relatable. Characters like Leonard and Zamir are not, and the actors’ struggles to make them clear can’t work with no real dimensionality. John Arthur Lewis, Elizabeth Birnkrant, and Devon Nimerfroh have similar struggles with their own characters (though Birnkrant’s physical comedy is welcome and Nimerfroh makes an excellent narrator).
This play, already very dated, lacks the vibrancy of most of Durang’s other works (like the also-dated Beyond Therapy, Eclipse’s more successful previous show). When a seemingly oblivious wife and mother is the only character in the play who is remotely relatable, something has not worked. And when a play satirizing the paranoia of post-9/11 America just seems to pile on gratuitous and repetitive violence, the satire has not worked. Maybe there is nothing Scott could have done to rescue this show after all. It’s just not quality Durang.
Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them is an Eclipse Theatre production now playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL, until Dec 15. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.