Torture's True Colors

Christopher Durang’s play, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, is loaded with scenes of pure madness. It’s a farce that brings to light the impulses (male impulses, as Durang has it) for renegade violence, for claiming social dominance and their tolerance of – or taste for – physical punishment to the brink of organ failure. (What, you didn’t notice?) Well, on that last point, Durang is not referring to all men; just some select Bush-era American men.

In director Tony Estrella’s hands, Torture’s alpha uber-conservative, Leonard (Sam Babbitt) keeps a mysterious den at home. He claims to keep his butterfly collection in that den. It is also where, we eventually learn, he has pinned black and white photos of his idols, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Ronald Reagan, to the wall alongside (among other things) a framed color portrait of John Yoo. (Some of Yoo’s work on behalf the United States Department of Justice Office of Legal Council, favoring torture, is available on the American Civil Liberties Union website.)

No surprise – I mean, about Leonard and his idols. Because it took Babbitt all of two minutes to establish that Leonard is both a parody of the iconic, patrician Reagan-persona and a fully- developed, frighteningly loveable (it’s Babbitt, is what it is) character who does “unspeakable” – so says Leonard’s wife Luella (Wendy Overly) – and monstrous things. But he rationalizes the unspeakable with a post-9/11, Blackwater-era, paranoid brand of American ideology. (Durang’s play debuted in 2009, the same year that the State Department announced its decision to decline renewing its contract with Blackwater for services in Iraq.)

The women and the man of the cloth in Torture are different: They favor peace-making strategies, like negotiation, ostensibly harmless manipulation and non-violent coercion. Felicity, the lead female character, has triggered all of the events of the play. (No, that’s unfair. She went to Hooters and flirted with a stranger who slipped a date rape drug into her drink, so he triggered the events, or. . .yeah.) In any case, she got in bed with a stranger and contracted with him, united with him, in an agreement that gave him exclusive and nearly exhaustive rights over all of her personal belongings and assets. Which is to say that she married the stranger.

Finally awake and sober and determined to get an annulment, Felicity inexplicably bumbles her way to a possible solution to her conflict. She works so hard to devise a peaceable way to resolve the situation, to get the annulment without getting hurt. And in the end, having fallen not very far from the old tree, she ripens into the picture of self-indulgent, rash diplomacy, committed to altering the past and assuming that the ideal and (so she thinks) most plausible way to fix things is to change the very nature of the people involved in the conflict to suit her notion of a happy ending. How preposterous, right? And yet, how good of Durang, that by the end, he finally flings Felicity’s character just as deep into the shadowy abyss of absurdity as her father, Leonard.

The Gamm’s Torture is funny and inventive. For those not acquainted with or accustomed to or in love with Absurdist theater, I will say to you, the dark humor and the satire will draw you in, but this play is challenging, and the second act especially might leave you feeling mystified. Sam Babbitt steals the show.