Here's Jonathan Margheim's hypothetical, Hollywood-style pitch for the Star Bar Players' next production, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them: It's "Meet the Parents meets Abu Ghraib."
"The issues of torture, terrorism, national security and fanaticism are all serious ones, but one of the show's charms is that it deals with these sensitive and polarizing issues in a decidedly non-sensitive manner," says the 29-year-old director, who is also co-founder and co-artistic director of Theatre 'd Art.
Though the word "torture" draws attention and hints at the heavy themes embedded within the story, the play isn't so much about torture as it is about human relationships. The story unfolds after a young woman, Felicity, wakes up next to a strange man, Zamir, whom she drunkenly wed the night before. "It sort of resembles the old scenario of two people handcuffed together," Margheim says.
Felicity thinks Zamir may be a terrorist, and when she introduces him to her parents, her father freaks out. He points a gun at his new son-in-law several times; Zamir replies by threatening to blow up their house with his cell phone. The back-and-forth continues, with Felicity's father eventually sending a "shadow government" cohort to follow Zamir. This woman, Hildegarde, thinks Zamir's planning a terrorist attack because she overhears him talking about "explosions everywhere."
In reality, Zamir's helping direct a porn flick.
While strong political themes surface in the play, Margheim says he's chosen to focus also "on notions of escapism in how we deal with some of the heavier political issues featured in the show.
"The play says a lot about how American culture deals with conflict," he says. "Hysteria and escapism have always seemed to be the tried and true responses in our society."
Chris Durang, an Ivy League-educated veteran of the off- and on-Broadway theater scenes, wrote the play in 2009. Via e-mail from his home in Pennsylvania, the 62-year-old writes, "I wanted something hopeful even if it's fanciful. The play is funny — the conservative father is a nut as I've written him, but I don't think the play has any hatred of him, or of any of the characters."
In fact, Margheim links the themes in Torture to "the sort of hysteria that we all share," which, he says has recently been illustrated by the craziness — and celebration — over Osama bin Laden's assassination weeks ago. "I mean, at times the celebrating in the streets after bin Laden's death was eerily reminiscent of the celebrating elsewhere after 9/11."
But both Margheim and Durang hope the comedy and approachability of difficult issues in the play help spark more serious conversations after the curtain falls.
"At the end," Durang says, "the play becomes a kind of fantasy of trying to imagine things better."