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TORTURE IS THE RIGHT WORD 

Missteps bedevil solid performances in CPT's latest

The problem with doing topical plays is that they can go sour so quickly. Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, has the last administration in its crosshairs — with specific references to John Yoo's obscene torture memos, stem-cell rights and other calamities foisted on us by George W. Bush's gang. 

Still, this kind of slightly dated, dark political comedy can work if it strikes the right combination of rage, absurdity and farce. Unfortunately, this production, despite some spot-on performances, comes up short on the amusement scale and feels much longer than its two-and-a-half hour running time. 

Felicity wakes up in bed with a strange man named Zamir and discovers they were married the night before after a long bout of partying at Hooters. Looking suspiciously Middle Eastern, Zamir soon proclaims that he's fond of kinky sex and has a volatile temper. 

Walking on eggshells, Felicity heads off to see her suburban parents for advice, with Zamir following. Mom Luella is woozily lost in a memory haze of plays and movies, and neocon daddy Leonard packs a big handgun in his waistband and levels it at "terrorist" Zamir at the slightest provocation. 

Playwright Durang can fashion cataclysmic conflict out of family dysfunction, and there are scenes here that work splendidly. In particular, Mary Jane Nottage virtually steals the show as Luella. Adorably daft, Nottage makes Luella believable and sympathetic. And her second-act meltdown, when she imagines what her retrograde husband might do if she were brain dead in a hospital, is priceless. 

Just as good is Robert Hawkes as Leonard, keeping his upstairs "butterfly collection room" a secret until it is revealed as a highly weaponized torture chamber where the unsuspecting Zamir will find himself undergoing enhanced interrogation. 

Also fine are Scott Ackerman as Zamir, negotiating his character's schizoid tendencies with skill, and Jenna Messina as Hildegarde, Leonard's hyperventilating and panty-dropping cohort in a right-wing "shadow government." And Doug Kusak holds his own as scuzzy Reverend Mike, a "porn-again" Christian. 

But director Beth Wood undercuts the effectiveness of those players by allowing Liz Conway as Felicity to perform at a constant near-panic level. Felicity is central to everyone else, and with Conway vibrating at such high intensity, it gradually erodes the humor of each ensuing — and increasingly wacky — scenario. 

Another misstep is permitting Zac Hudak to grossly overdo his roles as narrator and waiter, as if he wandered onto the set from a Jerry Lewis impersonator contest. This is topped off by perhaps the most misbegotten final scene in recent memory: a tedious "re-do" of the play from the beginning that attempts to cobble together a happy ending. It's a long slog to a weak concluding musical metaphor (sung atrociously by Hudak) to tweak all us lost souls. But in this ultimate moment, it's the play that's lost. 

arts@clevescene.com

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