Playwright Christopher Durang can still build up a head of steam over the administration of President George W. Bush — the war in Iraq; domestic wiretapping; curtailing tax-supported stem cell research; Terri Schiavo’s protracted final weeks.
Those sore subjects and the political polarization they stoked all figure in Durang’s 2009 off-Broadway hit “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” The play will have its Washington area premiere at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop from May 26 through June 11 in a production by American Ensemble Theater .
Durang says he doesn’t usually write while fuming. He’s created some of the darkest, most pain-laced American comedies of the past 30 years, including “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” “Laughing Wild,” “Baby With the Bathwater,” “Beyond Therapy,” “Betty’s Summer Vacation” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.”
“Even though I sound angry as we’re speaking, I have to say, weirdly, I wasn’t angry writing it,” Durang says of “Torture.”
“I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to mention Bush or [former Vice President] Cheney’s name. It was just where the country was,” the playwright says. The play “reflects back in a comic way, the polarization in the country,” he adds.
“It reads funny, but it plays funnier,” says Martin Blank, artistic director of American Ensemble Theater.
An acting coach, playwright and founding artistic director of Theater J in the early 1990s, Blank launched American Ensemble in 2010. He wanted to do just one or two plays a year on a shoestring, charging only $8 a ticket but delivering strong performances. “I’m trying to put on substantive plays that are first fun and entertaining but do have something to say, ” Blank says.
In “Torture,” a possible terrorism suspect spouts wildly misleading information when tortured. “The person wants one particular answer, and he basically tortures the guy until he gets that answer. Which seems to me within the realm of possibility,” says Durang.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., will offer two world premieres in its five-play rep July 8-31 as well as two recent works by theater icons Sam Shepard and David Mamet. The festival, held on the campus of Shepherd University, features Equity actors in new or recently premiered plays. For its 21st season, artistic director Ed Herendeen has chosen:
• “From Prague,” a world premiere by Kyle Bradstreet, in which three lost souls encounter one another in a ghostly Prague church. Herendeen directs.
• “The Insurgents” by Lucy Thurber, the second world premiere and a play that was commissioned by the festival. Thurber explores the lives and views of history-making insurgents John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Timothy McVeigh and Nat Turner. Lear deBessonet directs.
• “Race,” by Mamet, which ran on Broadway for 297 performances in 2009-10. Two lawyers defend a white man accused of raping a black woman, and racial feelings combust. Herendeen directs.
• “Ages of the Moon” by Shepard, which ran off-Broadway early in 2010. Two men in their 60s at a Kentucky fishing cabin knock back some bourbon and look back at their lives. Herendeen directs.
• “We Are Here” by Tracy Thorne, which will have its second-ever production at the festival. The drama focuses on three generations of a family dealing with the loss of a child. Lucie Tiberghien will direct.
• A passel of Washington-based actors — among them Jennifer Mendenhall, Sarah Marshall, Chris Henley and Craig Wallace — will take part in a “24-Hour Dramathon” Friday, starting at 11 p.m. at Theater J. It’s a fundraiser for the Theatre Lab acting school’s Send a Kid to Theatre Camp program. Eight local playwrights have contributed new 10-minute plays, which they had to create in 24 hours. The actors are allowed one rehearsal. The goal is to raise $63,000 to cover scholarships for those whose families can’t afford the tuition.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.