For many theatergoers, summer means pleasant musicals and mild-mannered comedy. It may seem counter-intuitive, but two local companies are bucking that tradition with clever comedies that combine humor and edgy insight. The young Titanic Theatre Company (founded in 2010) is tackling out author Christopher Durang’s satiric exploration of both homeland and personal insecurities in the area premiere of his “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” The veteran Nora Theatre Company is showcasing Alan Ayckbourn’s sharp portrait of domestic absurdity and private terror in his disquieting if often hilarious comedy “Absurd Person Singular.”
It may be no coincidence that Titanic Theatre shares its name with Durang’s own short play “Titanic.” Committed to “sharp-edged contemporary comedy,” TTC is staging post 9-11 set “Why Torture Is Wrong…”which director Adam Zahler describes in a playbill note as providing both a needed “good laugh” and “a nice manual on how to handle the War on Terror.” Without divulging too much of Durang’s alternately outrageous and amusing plotting, a confused young lingerie-attired heroine named Felicity awakens in bed with a briefs-clad enigmatic young man named Zamir who claims to be her newlywed husband. Is Zamir really from Ireland as he says? Does he work at mysterious odd jobs for which he finds his payment under a rock? Is he a terrorist?
Early on Zamir displays quite a temper in reacting to her doubts. Felicity’s quirky father Leonard seems to rush to judgment about his new son-in-law though-as Durang reveals- he may be concealing his own truth from his daughter and his mild-mannered, theater-obsessed wife Luella. Is right wing Leonard really collecting butterflies upstairs at their home? Why is he speaking in code with fellow arch conservative Hildegarde? Is there any substance to his allusions to a ‘’shadow government”? Eventually Reverend Mike, the porn-involved minister who wed Felicity and Zamir, adds to the complications before the inventive playwright provides clarifications that add to the play’s rich comedic mix.
Along the way, Durang inserts some rollicking comments about theatergoer reactions to plays by contemporaries Tom Stoppard and Brian Friel. The play also resonates—as much as ever—with timely observations about the slippery slope that is homeland security and the fascination of many males with torture, violence and weapons. A relatively harmonious ending may seem to clash somewhat with the unrelenting satiric tone of the majority of the play, but audiences will nevertheless find a lot of food for thought as well as an abundance of good laughter.
Director Zahler and a crack cast do full justice by both the thoughtfulness and the humor. Caroline Rose Markham has the right blend of vulnerability and bravery in the face of many uncertainties and challenges to her emotional stability. Alexander J. Morgan catches Zamir’s charm and elusiveness as well as his temper. Jeff Gill –with superb gesturing, body moves and facial expressions- finds all of Leonard’s own menace, as well as his strange take on America and its freedoms. Shelley Brown is a superbly understated scene-stealer as Luella- especially when she rattles off somewhat obscure facts about plays to theater-hating Felicity. Jonathan Barron has the right nonchalance as Reverend Mike though he could be sleazier. Alisha Jansky has the right oddball tone as Hildegarde, and Brett Milanowski smoothly moves from Voice/Narrator to emcee of an uncharacteristically elegant Hooter’s.
Marc Harpin’s spare but specific design- particularly distinctive square and rectangular set pieces- allow for smooth scene changes. Meredith Magoun’s costumes properly range from the scanty to the stylish- most notably a rainbow repertoire of otherwise identical dresses for Luella. Prop Designer Kristin Meyers rates a special nod for color-coding Luella’s hostess snacks to her dresses.
With on-going debates about drones, prisoner interrogations, immigration reform and gun control, “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” proves timelier than ever. Thanks to Zahler and Titanic Theatre, Durang’s painfully accurate observations make for delightfully unconventional summer fare.
Equally enjoyable are Alan Ayckbourn’s subtler insights about the uncertain fortunes of three very different British couples in his three-act kitchen-set “Absurd Person Singular,” in an artful Nora Theatre revival. While the play centers on three successive Christmas celebrations, the revelations about human relationships and motivations are ultimately less than festive. As each couple respectively hosts one of the parties, Ayckbourn’s knack for finding the pleasure and the pain in mundane activities brings both hilarity and pathos to their socializing.
Jane and Sidney may begin as the most financially and socially precarious of the three couples—with Sidney concerned about a business loan from banker Ronald and Ronald’s wife Marion pretending to admire Jane’s fairly simple kitchen. Womanizing architect Geoffrey exasperates his emotionally conflicted wife Eva to the point of contemplating suicide. Eventually Geoffrey and Ronald face different but daunting professional challenges as Sidney’s business success puts him in the proverbial driver’s seat. Along the way, an unseen couple named Potter is vividly spoken about by the others-especially husband Dick Potter who appears to have a career long penchant for taking young lads on ambitious field trips. Audiences will find ample opportunities for laughter in the reality—based absurdities that befall the characters. Even so, what may linger most are Ayckbourn’s trenchant perceptions about the games couples as well as individuals play on the unstable stage of life.
Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People who Love Them. Titanic Theatre Company, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through August 10. firstname.lastname@example.org
Director Daniel Gidron carefully orchestrates the discord as well as the harmony of the diverse couples. Steve Barkheimer displays his considerable gifts for both comedy and pathos as Ronald-particularly in the standout second act at Geoffrey and Eva’s. His evocation of a kind of Twilight Zone prisoner of circumstances—one moment frustrated, the next seemingly paralyzed in a state of helplessness- is alone worth the price of admission. Stephanie Clayman makes a brilliant transformation from Marion’s aloof demeanor at the start to her sad unraveling towards the end of the third act.
David Berger-Jones has the right energy as essentially self-centered Sidney, particularly as he becomes a kind of sadistic ringmaster leading the circus-like game at Ron and Marion’s. Samantha Evans catches wife Jane’s weariness as well as her domestic cheeriness. Bill Mootos captures Geoffrey’s disturbing sexist bravado and his contrasting professional insecurity. Liz Hayes beautifully modulates Eva’s remarkably inept attempts at suicide, as her kitchen becomes a kind of poster child for household hazard
Brynna Bloomfield’s well-detailed set design could do with architectural touches for Geoffrey and Eva’s kitchen and more upscale ones for Ron and Marion’s. Leslie Held’s costumes effectively complement the ups and downs of the couples’ fortunes. Scott Pinkney makes the most of the lighting challenges that add to the slapstick and absurdity of some of the funniest stretches.
“Absurd Person Singular” cleverly underscores the silliness and the sadness that often come together at the holidays. Nora Theatre’s well-balanced revival is a cause for celebration.
Absurd Person Singular, The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theatre, Cambridge, through August 18.centralsquaretheatre.org or 866-811-4111