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Directing "Torture" Nicholas Martin’s job is to keep thing fast and light, even—perhaps especially—with Durang’s “Why Torture Is Wrong.”
This year marks 10 years that director Nicholas Martin has been staging plays by Christopher Durang, starting with the harrowing comedy Betty’s Summer Vacation at Playwrights Horizons in 1999. That play skewered the “tabloid-ization” of American culture, while Durang’s latest, Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, now playing at the Public Theatre, has the contentious politics of the last eight years in its sights.

What a difference a decade makes. Though Durang has touched on politics before (in 1996’s poorly received Sex and Longing), Why Torture Is Wrong does seem like a departure for the dark-comic playwright.

“I guess it’s his first excursion into political satire in a play,” Martin concedes, but quickly adds, “In a larger sense, his works have always been political—whether it’s about sexual politics or the larger politics of country.”

Budget-conscious theatergoers may be happy to learn that with Torture they’re getting “three plays in one,” Martin continues. “It’s a domestic comedy, it’s a political satire and it’s wrapped in a kind of Durangian play-within-a-play device. There’s a familiar character, which is really the playwright himself, an innocent who enters this kind of Alice in Wonderland world. There are certain familiar Durang elements in the play, though the territory is new.”

There’s another element that may look new to audiences, who were reminded by last year’s revival of Durang’s The Marriage of Bette & Boo just how dark his early plays were.

“One new thing in his work is that there’s a kind of generosity in his work, and in his outlook in genral,” Martin says. “I think he has more patience with the human race, though not with the elements that have tortured this country for the past 10 years. This is still a dark and savage play that manages to walk that line between black and light comedy, which is entirely Durangian. But he’d be the first to agree that he’s softened his attitude to humanity and to most things that are endurable.”

Now, that’s twice that Martin has used the word “Durangian.” So does he think that the playwright who wrote Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You has in fact managed to create his own genre of theatre, on the order of Beckettian or Pinteresque?

“I have this theory that he and John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), these two Catholic boys with wild imaginations, actually established, in the late 20th century, a kind of absurdist comedy that is entirely American—their own version of European absurdist playwrights like Ionesco. Their Roman Catholic upbringing gives them a very particular view of life and death. They were the groundbreakers.”

Certainly, it would be hard to imagine some of the work of contemporary writers like David Lindsay-Abaire or Noah Haidle without the precedent set by the likes of Guare and Durang .

“Chris continues to break ground,” Martin raves. “I think he’s the most imitated playwright, because what he does looks like it’s easy. It’s very tricky, and utterly original.”

In Why Torture Is Wrong, a young woman (Laura Benanti) who married a South Asian man (Amir Arison) while drunk starts to wonder if he’s a terrorist, and her right-wing parents (played by Richard Poe and Durang muse Kristine Nielsen) decide to take matters into their own hands.

“Bush and Cheney are never mentioned,” Martin assures, though other Bush Administration officials involved in redefining the bounds of legal interrogation are. What surprises Martin is that the subject   “still is hot in the news. We couldn’t have predicted that. I’m glad on both levels—both on the international and the theatrical levels—that it’s being talked about.”

Martin is known primarily for comedies, including Butley, The New Century, Fully Committed and Full Gallop. So is directing comedy really all about timing?

“It’s a cliché with comedy—just make it faster and louder—but it’s true,” Martin says. “Most directors who tell you otherwise are just finding another way to say that. I’m too old to make up something else; I’m very practical.”

Martin, who ran Boston’s Huntington Repertory Theatre from 2000 to 2008 and recently took the helm of prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a company man: He likes to work with the same people repeatedly if he can, including scenic designer David Korins, costume designed Gabriel Berry and lighting designer Ben Stanton.

That doesn’t mean he’s averse to working with someone new. Case in point: Benanti is primarily known for musical theatre, from Into the Woods to the recent Gypsy. But she’s going to make a splash as a comedienne, Martin feels.

“I would like to work with Laura in every play for the rest of time,” Martin says. “She’s truly funny but she also has a depth that practically no actress of her age has. We never expected her to come in; she volunteered to come in because, like me, she just laughed so much when she read the play. We saw a lot of wonderful women, but her audition was just...” He doesn’t find the words for a moment, then he finds these, “I’d like to do everything from Our Town to Cleopatra with her.”

Or, if luck would have it, the next Durang play.

Click here for more information about Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.