AN OPEN LETTER TO CHRISTOPHER DURANG
by Harvey Perr
published April 10, 2009
Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them
now playing Off Broadway at the Public Theater
through May 3
We don’t know each other but I think I’ve seen enough of your plays over the years to call you by your first name. I’m writing to
thank you for being the same Christopher Durang all this time. And, knowing what you know about satire in the American theater (you know,
that it’s what closes on Saturday night!), it hasn’t stopped your one-man campaign to keep playing around with it and to keep pushing it to
its limit. I say this because I’ve just seen Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them
and I must tell you that I haven’t laughed so hard or so long in the theater in I can’t remember how long. And I just wanted to show my
appreciation and share that fact with you. I didn’t come into the theater feeling so great but, laughter being the tonic it is, I felt much
better when I left. Much better.
Mind you, I didn’t always laugh where I should have laughed, but if you don’t hit every target you aim for, two out of three
isn’t bad. I certainly identified with Felicity, having spent so much of the last eight years waking up with a serious hangover, and feeling
somehow as if I was hanging on to my sanity while the rest of the world was going mad around me. Laura Benanti is really good in the part
because, if we are going to identify with anyone on stage, who else would we want to identify with? But here and there, I wondered if it was
the right time for this (this Bush era stuff in the golden Obama era), feeling good as we are these days about where we are now, or if it
might have made more sense being produced, say, a year ago. But, then again, we know that, whatever changes we are going through, we should
be braced for the knowledge that it sure as hell is going to change again. And your scenario, based on the recent past, is sure to be as apt
a blueprint for the future. But, anyway, if I didn’t laugh at some of the stuff about the “shadow” government or the tired stuff about
suburbia, I did get a kick out of the juxtaposition of one cliché on another.
But what really made me laugh was your Looney Tune spy and how, everytime David Aaron Baker opened his mouth, another cartoon
character popped out. That was a terrific invention. And, of course, every time Kristine Nielsen talked about the theater, I doubled over
with gut-churning hysterics. Between you and me, you could write a whole evening of commentaries on the American theater, put them in the
mouth of your character Luella, have Ms. Nielsen play the part (in one-woman show mold) and I could probably sit and listen to her forever.
Do it once a season and you will have a way to pick up the slack that the departing Forbidden
Broadway has left us with. What Detective Story did to Luella was precisely the kind of
manic display that I think of as comic genius. I’m not even sure I know why I was laughing. Just that it was funny and it kept getting
You sure lucked out getting David Korins to design your set; that revolving set was a marvel and a joy of clockwork ingenuity.
And your director, Nicholas Martin, found some really clever things to do with it during the play’s transitions. I guess you know by now
that your personal style is very cartoon-like and it requires a kind of acting that doesn’t always sit comfortably with American actors, but
your cast was giving it everything they’ve got, and, of course, when you find yourself a Kristine Nielsen, who really gets it, hold onto her
with a very tight grip. I don’t need to tell you that.
Now I’m sure that when people talk about Gabriel Berry’s costumes, they’re talking about Luella’s identically-patterned gowns of
different colors or how Audrie Neenan’s panties happen to fall on cue, but what I loved most was the way Ms. Benanti got to look just like
Cyd Charisse in the “Dancing in the Dark” scene. A nostalgic moment like that makes it a little easier to give oneself so easily to
craziness. Christopher, I’m not so sure about the end of the play. Nobody is ever going to accuse you of sentimentality, but there is
something a little, shall we say, “roseate” about your vision of how we might get ourselves out of the mess we find ourselves
Hey, incidentally, it so happens that I’m the guy who shot himself during Faith Healer,
but, like Chekhov’s Vanya, I missed. I’m happy now that I survived, since it gave me the chance to see Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them. In the theater, as I’m sure you know, everything
balances out in the end.
Thanks for listening and keep it up.
All the best,
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com