Theatre Three's downstairs dungeon Theatre Too is exactly the right space in which to stage Christopher Durang's semi-absurd political satire Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. In the play's disturbing, dystopian world, the only safe place to be is a windowless bunker safely out of the reach of Middle Eastern terrorists, warmongering Republicans and certain award-winning British dramatists.
Just because Theatre Too's underground environs fit the play, however, doesn't mean that the play fits this theater. Theatres Three and Too have a poor history with comedies in general and their streak of siphoning the fun out of contemporary farce doesn't end with this Durang. Crisp jokes tend to go droopy on these stages, and they don't seem to realize that interrupting comedies with blackouts between scenes, even when no scenery or costumes need changing, murders a comedy's momentum.
So many things fail in this production, you'd need extra hands to have enough fingers for pointing. But let's not go there just yet. The play itself is not without probs. Like previous Durang works—Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Betty's Summer Vacation are two of his best—Why Torture Is Wrong is a kooky ride on the bitterness express. In this one, the playwright works out his issues with the Bush administration's policies on "enhanced interrogation methods." And when's the last time you heard a snappy one-liner about the John Yoo torture memo?
Yoo who? Exactly. The references scattershot through Why Torture Is Wrong were already hitting their sell-by dates when the play premiered at New York's Public Theater two years ago. Stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo case, "Freedom Fries"—done and done better by South Park ages ago. (John Yoo, so you won't have to Google it, was the Justice Department lawyer who did the paperwork that gave the Bushies a free pass to torture captured "enemy combatants," including the use of waterboarding, and wrote memos subverting the Fourth Amendment for all Americans in the name of "fighting terror.")
Why Torture Is Wrong goes after G-Dub, Cheney and the other smirking warlords of the Illuminati, but it's funnier when it grazes on earlier, nicer moments in American life. Durang, a child of the '50s, has his characters fondly remember Looney Tunes and Father Knows Best (a beloved black-and-white sitcom about the ideal American family, in case you've forgotten) and then adopt voices and attitudes from them. This play wildly free-associates among cultural highs and lows like that, randomly dropping lines from A Streetcar Named Desire and lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals into dialogue like video game Easter eggs. Durang also slingshots into asides about Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, Wicked, Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia, Fresca, Jane Fonda, Brian Friel, The Mad Woman of Chaillot and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Sound confusing? Can be, especially when characters stare through the fourth wall, speak to the audience and start rewinding the play to earlier scenes in hopes of getting better end results. (Something they might think of doing in all of Theatre Three/Too's shows, come to think of it.)
There is a plot. A pretty girl named Felicity (played by Lee Jamison, who's gorgeous) wakes up next to a strange, swarthy man named Zamir (Nas Mehdi) and learns she's married him the night before during a roofy-colada-fueled blackout. He has a short temper and brutish manner, but despite his frequent mentions of burkas and bombs, he insists he's from Ireland. When Felicity takes Zamir home to meet her mom, Luella (Brandi Andrade in June Cleaver dress and pearls), and dad, Leonard (Terry Vandivort), it's not hugs and kisses they're greeted with. Leonard, secretly a member of the "shadow government," becomes convinced that Zamir's in need of some "enhanced interrogation" upstairs in the "butterfly room." Misunderstandings involving porn film titles, terrorist plots and bad Chinese underpants lead to the removal, for homeland security purposes, of three of Zamir's fingers and his ear.
Actors who could make this allegorical strudel of satire and Jeopardy! answers laugh-worthy are nowhere near Theatre Too's production, which was directed and designed by Bruce R. Coleman. Jamison, Andrade and Mehdi, by playing their characters straight, do all right. But they have to share the stage with others who flap and flail. Where a Brian Dennehy type is needed for the gung ho dad, Coleman's cast the tiny, delicate Vandivort. Even waving a shiny machete like Charlie Sheen on a rooftop, Vandivort's character comes off about as threatening as Niles Crane's first wife Maris. As another undercover operative (the one with sagging panties), Amy Mills is slow on the uptake and blocked to stand in places where half the audience in the 95-seat house can't see her. Playing smaller roles, Chris Dover and Dan Pucul didn't seem all that familiar with the play or their parts in it on opening night (there was only one preview before that).
Technically, Why Torture Is Wrong suffers from the usual Theatre Three/Too cheapjack tricks, like badly painted backdrops and flimsy dresses (the ones Jamison wears are an insult to the actress' lovely face and figure). Those areas were Coleman's responsibilities and from all indications in this and his previous productions, he's satisfied with making scenery and everyone standing in front of it look like crap. Lighting designer David Gibson has managed the unique achievement of giving everybody on the small stage five shadows.
Durang's play, now sounding as dated as episodes of Murphy Brown, makes light of things that aren't amusing anymore. Anyway, on any weeknight, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert utter more trenchant bon mots about our dear leaders past and present. If you're in the mood for timeless, sickly funny satire about politics and war, watch Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, whose subtitle is How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. There's just no comparison between that masterpiece and the bomb at Theatre Too.
Like members of the medical profession, sweet little One Thirty Productions seems to abide by the philosophy "first, do no harm." Their plays at the Bath House Cultural Center, including their latest, James Prideaux's 1984 comedy The Housekeeper, are harmless fluff aimed at older audiences who like seeing a matinee and then catching a late supper around 4 p.m.
Regular One Thirty stars Gene Raye Price and Cliff Stephens, both solid pros, team up for this two-hander, which could be retitled "My Fair Old Lady." He's a snooty old bachelor with a British accent; she's the uneducated ragamuffin he hires to cook and tidy after his beloved mother dies. With little to indicate they like each other, suddenly they're smooching on the couch, a bit of action that elicits "oohs" from the creaky joint crowd.
Director Marty Van Kleeck and her cast have blown the dust off The Housekeeper and made it two hours of good, clean fun.