Kristine Nielsen and Laura Benanti
in Why Torture Is Wrong
(© Joan Marcus)
Kristine Nielsen and Laura Benanti
in Why Torture Is Wrong
(© Joan Marcus)
Trust Christopher Durang to ferret out any laughs lurking in the "War on Terror." Better yet, trust him to expose the human toll at the heart of it and to make us really register the impact of the brutal interrogations being conducted out of sight but in our name. The first act of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People who Love Them, now debuting at the Public Theater under Nicholas Martin's fizzy direction, is all fun and games and gags. However, once an actual ball gag appears, along with other implements of "enhanced" persuasion, it's harder to remain lighthearted. Still, Durang and company still manage somehow to wrest humor from horror.

As the play begins, a young woman named Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up, appalled, beside a strange man (Amir Arison) with whom she has presumably spent a drunken night of passion. "Zamir" (who insists the name is Irish) blithely reports that en route to bed, they were married -- by a minister who dabbles in porno. Furthermore, Zamir -- who admits to a sketchy employment history ("Sometimes I just find money... under a rock, you know") -- quickly exhibits a possessive streak, accompanied by a hair-trigger temper. Clearly, this match made in Hooters is not a match made in heaven.

It's when Felicity takes her dubiously acquired spouse home to a WASPs' nest of ultra-conservative absurdity that Durang is really in his element. Mother (a delightfully ditsy Kristine Nielsen) is a drama aficionado given to tangential reveries and inane plot summaries of theatrical treasures. Daddy (Richard Poe) is a blowhard right-winger who has a soft spot for his closely guarded butterfly collection -- or so he claims. Naturally, he doesn't take to the instant son-in-law, and their introduction quickly escalates to an armed confrontation, followed by an especially rigorous grilling as to the groom's prospects. And then just when you think Durang has gone too far, the playwright devises an exit strategy as clever as it is charming.

All four principals are superb, and the peripheral roles are smartly filled as well: John Pankow as the wholesomely louche Reverend Mike, a "porn again Christian"; David Aaron Baker in a panoply of parts, including that of a secret operative named Looney Tunes and afflicted with a cartoon version of Tourette's; and especially Audrie Neenan as Hildegarde, a "shadow government" agent who can't control her crush on Daddy -- or her panties, which have a way of puddling around her ankles on cue.

The mechanics of that trick are a mystery known only to Neenan and costume designer Gabriel Berry. Also defying the laws of physics is David Korins' revolving pie of a set, which has more rooms -- from bedroom to bar to breakfast nook and beyond -- than seems geometrically possible.