Christopher Durang: Living Legend or Tortured Soul?

04/29/2009 10:40 AM |

c8f6/1240951982-torture.jpgI’ve always admired Christopher Durang’s work. A monologue in one of his short plays, Naomi in The Living Room, was one of the first things that really drew me to the stage, though I didn’t start writing until a few years later.

When you’re young — or I guess I should speak for myself — when I was young, I assumed that everyone important that I admired was dead, because death seemed to confer genius upon individuals who would otherwise be merely human, having to muddle through the messiness of actual life like the rest of us. So, as I’ve grown up and readjusted my sense of chronology somewhat, I’m interested to find that some of those people that I admired as a kid are not only not dead, but continuing to do interesting things. Chris Durang is one of them. So, I was excited to get over to the Public and see his new show.

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is funny and features many of Durang’s best qualities as a writer — typified by the spot-on performance of Kristine Nielsen as Luella. There’s this female voice that Durang has always nailed — seemingly insincere, absurd, unintentionally witty, estranged from society, and Nielsen is perfectly cast in the role, often stealing the show with her beguiling expressions. Yet, what struck me most about the show, is that in it Durang is actively questioning his relationship with the audience and his role as a theater-maker in the world today.

The subject matter of Torture is very “relevant,” maybe even slightly dated since the regime change here in our own country, though the release of the torture memos last week has brought it back to the fore. It’s essentially about the absurdity of American hubris and our torture policies, set in an intimate family milieu. The household also evokes the ways in which we torture one another in our marital and not-marital relations. Durang makes a lot of assumptions about his audience in terms of their political sympathies (something that I find can be a little boring, to be honest, getting laughs over assumed agreement with certain lefty beliefs is a cheap trick, even from a great writer). With all this political content, it’s telling that Durang made sure to note at the bottom of his bio that he is now writing for the Huffington Post (what remotely famous person isn’t writing for the Huff Post these days?).

But within this funny and well-paced comedy is a strong feeling of uncertainty about the role of theater. He accomplishes this with dialogue between the matron Luella (Nielsen) and her daughter Felicity (Laura Benanti). Felicity, who is somewhere in her 20s, thinks theater is boring and expensive and irrelevant, and Luella can’t stop herself from recounting the glories of the shows she remembers best. Durang also uses these dialogues to poke fun at his fellow scions of theater — Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Brian Friel, etc. — essentially a bunch of older dude writers, majority British or Irish, who can count on having their new work produced throughout their lives. It shows his own love of the form, his good-natured but competitive interest in the work of other writers of his own stature, but it also reveals a little bit of an identity crisis.

It’s strange to see someone in Durang’s position giving so much lip service to this question in a play that for all intents and purposes has nothing to do with the role of theater in America. But then again, he runs the playwriting program at Julliard with Marsha Norman. He’s faces a room full of hopeful sops like me every day and suffers through our interminable questions about how to build a career in the theater. And no one seems to have an easy answer to this one these days — especially not anyone who spends a lot of time sitting in audiences comprised almost entirely of grey-haired theatergoers.

The good news for those of us at a lower income bracket is that you can catch the remaining performances of the play for far less than the standard asking price: rush tickets are $20 and the box office can usually give you a hint about how many are available and how early or not you need to show up to get them.

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them, at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.