Review - Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them & Irena's Vow

"Acting is reacting," says many a teacher of the craft, and if they're right then Christopher Durang has handed his leading lady, Laura Benanti, a career's worth of reasons to react in his surreal cavalcade, Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them. A meta-theatrical farce disguised as a satire of America's war on terrorism (with a brief lesson about taking control of your life and a somewhat romantic conclusion for those who require such things) Why... is top-shelf Durang lunacy and Benanti, making a rare non-musical appearance, proves herself a wonderful everywoman foil.

Watch her subtly try to make sense of the opening scene, where, as the perfectly nice, average, intelligent single woman, Felicity, she wakes up next to a total stranger named Zamir (a sleazy and tense Amir Arison), who says that in between her drunken vomiting fits the night before, the two of them got married by a minister who sidelines as a porno director. ("You said you never put out unless you got married first. And I thought you were joking, but I decided to call your bluff.") Naturally, Felicity wants an annulment - especially after learning of the secretive and most likely illegal occupations that earn Zamir a living - but the subject brings out the guy's severe violent streak ("It's a flaw in my character, but all the women in my family are dead.") so she does the next best thing and takes him to meet her parents.

Kristine Nielsen draws every legitimate laugh imaginable in her wide-eyed and cheerfully eccentric portrayal of Felicity's happy homemaker mom, Luella. (picture Edith Bunker after a few bong hits) By making her a theatre-addict, Durang loads up the play with inside jokes about both his contemporaries (Luella thinks her daughter's disinterest in theatre may be a result of seeing, "those three evenings of Tom Stoppard plays.") and the classics; especially poignant (and hilarious) when Nielson delivers his arch spin on the most famous quote from Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Richard Poe laps up every negative arch-conservative stereotype the author can serve him as Felicity's guff father, Leonard ("The United Nations is worthless. I won't have it spoken of positively in this house, do you understand?"), who treasures his secret butterfly collection, though his daughter suspects it may be a euphemism for something else. Despite Zamir's insistence that he's Irish, Leonard's suspicions that his new son-in-law is an Islamic terrorist escalate during a family meal of freedom toast, and by the second act, after receiving misinterpreted information about a meeting between Zamir and the "porn again Christian" (a skuzzy but genial John Pankow), he is utilizing his favorite methods of inquiry to get to know his new family member.

Helping him out are associates Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan), who literally cannot keep her panties up, and a spy by the name of Loony Tunes (David AaRon Baker, terrific in his few small roles) who is afflicted with a syndrome that forces him to keep impersonating Warner Brothers cartoon characters. Both of these contrivances have no business being as funny as they are, but director Nicholas Martin's effervescent spark makes almost anything plausible. Even an uproarious set change attempt on David Korins' carousel of locations. I can't explain it. Ya gotta see it.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top Kristine Nielsen and Laura Benanti; Bottom: John Pankow, Laura Benanti and Amir Arison

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While trying to get some sleep late last night, it suddenly struck me how similar the six lead characters in 13 are to the six lead characters in Merrily We Roll Along. Have people been discussing this already or did I just have an original thought?

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My second visit to Irena's Vow, some six and a half months after seeing it Off-Broadway, was pretty much the same experience as my first. With the same company of actors, director and designers moving the production to Broadway, I didn't notice any major differences in the text or in the mounting. However, seeing the transfer after the first wave of reviews had come out, I did enter the Walter Kerr Theatre with the knowledge that playwright Dan Gordon had been criticized for dramatizing a great true story in a simplistic manner. Quite honestly, when I first heard the play was moving to Broadway I was afraid that might be the case. And while I won't claim Irena's Vow is a great piece of dramatic literature, despite the power of the story being told, I do think Gordon's simple telling makes for effective theatre. Below is my review of Irena's Vow Off-Broadway. Everything I wrote about it then is how I feel about it now.

At the beginning of Dan Gordon's engrossing and uplifting drama, Irena's Vow, Tovah Feldshuh, as real life heroin Irena Gut Opdyke, is introduced to a high school auditorium filled with students to tell them about her experiences as a 19-year-old trying to hide 12 Jews in Nazi occupied Poland. At the end of the play she is reminding her young listeners that they are the last generation that will hear first hand accounts of the Holocaust's atrocities from those who survived it, and that it is their responsibility to never back away from confronting hatred.

What works so beautifully about Irena's Vow is that it is told with the simple story-telling elegance of an uncomplicated woman who was led by circumstance to do something extraordinary during extremely complicated times. The nine other actors play essentially one-note characters (and they play them very well, I might add) in this plot-driven ninety minute piece, which seems appropriate when you consider that the dramatization serves as a substitute for the way she describes the story for her young audience.

After The catholic Irena is raped by a group of invading Russian soldiers at the outset of World War II ("That was my first date. My first kiss."), she is sent to work in a German munitions factory. There, her blonde hair and fluency in German attracts the attention of SS Major Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), who orders her sent to his barracks to be in charge of the eleven Jews working in his laundry room. (We only see three: a married couple played by Gene Silvers and Maja Wampuszyc and Tracee Chimo as a seamstress around Irena's age.) By the time Rugemer decides to move to a large home and take Irena with him as his head housekeeper, she has already witnessed the systematic elimination of the Jews in progress and takes it upon herself to hide her companions in the basement. After all, inside the home of an SS major is the last place someone would expect Jews to be hiding.

There are close calls, of course, and even a bit of humor, but when Irena must go to extreme measures to save the lives of her friends, her actions cause the eventual victors to see her as a Nazi sympathizer and she is made to suffer the consequences.

Michael Parva directs with a soft and sensitive touch. The drama is never didactic and though the play is light on character development the evening can be emotionally overwhelming; especially when Alex Koch's projections of period photographs add raw authenticity to the production.

But despite the fine accomplishments of her colleagues, the evening belongs to the mesmerizing Tovah Feldshuh, perhaps one of the New York stage's most underappreciated actors. Without trying to pass herself off as 19 she gives a wonderful sense of youthful disillusionment and rejuvenation to her portrayal, making Irena a heroic figure who is still going through the normal phases of growing up. As older Irena, she is a modest and soft-spoken woman who can turn to rage when hearing those who deny the Holocaust ever happened. During such moments, or when reacting to the piece's most tragic episodes with painful realism, you can truly forget that she's acting. But then, maybe she isn't.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Tovah Feldshuh; Bottom: Maja Wampuszyc, Tracee Chimo, Tovah Feldshuh and Gene Silvers



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