The Patient from "That Old Soft Shoe" at The Brick

How many comedies about torture there are in the naked city! Maybe not all of them are comedies, but it seems like our Empire City response to 24 and the Bush years has been laughter – hysterical, terrified laughter, of the mad scientist variety.

Kyle Ancowitz’s production of Matthew Freeman’s play That Old Soft Shoe at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg is a hilariously irreverent, frenetic, and absurd send up of 24 and its genre of fear mongering drama that will keep you laughing all the way to a highly classified black site in Jordan – or more probably, Florida.

The setting is all too familiar – especially for a crowd who has probably never seen the inside of a jail, much less a top secret government “black site” – a dark room, a table, a chair, a couple of interrogators and The Patient. They need to get something out of him, though he’s as still and silent as a stone. Heather, the hard boiled female interrogator, not only wants him to perform, she needs it so she can transfer out of this unit. Her associate Julian has come to love the machine. For him there is no past, no family or friends on “the outside.” For Julian there is only a perpetual now, a sleep with no dreams. Horace is the recent West Point grad who wants to replace Heather. He has all the latest ideas developed out East on how to deal with “them.”

Everyone is waiting for Senator Corpuscle, played with manic genius by Steve Burns, who will evaluate the situation and either let Heather go, let Horace take her place, and report to Congress that we’re winning the fight “over there”; or he will see what a miserable failure they all are, and consign them to live in this Purgatory for the rest of time. With the Senator is his lovely assistant, Gretchen, who is secretly working as a spy for the other political party. Can anyone be trusted to do their job around here?

The dialogue is snap, crackle, and pop. Senator Corpuscle has my favorite lines, like “Status quo, fuck you! I am an agent for change!” or “Like Bill O’Reilley, I am a centrist.” As any good comedy about torture should, this play demonstrates that the good guys are the bad guys, the bad guys are us, and The Patient is really an Eastern European, francophone update of Mel Brook’s monster in Young Frankenstein. Imagine a black and white gangster movie from the golden age of Hollywood, only in color and live onstage and about terrorists, and you have That Old Soft Shoe.

The Hollywood clichés are transmogrified into torture jokes – the “soft shoe” of the title is a jackboot on The Patient’s throat, as well as the dance he has to do to make his torturers happy; Senator Corpuscle is a 21st century version of Groucho Marx’s President Firefly from Duck Soup; and Heather is a wisecracking Jean Harlow or Katherine Hepburn. The absurd farces of that era (e.g. any Marx Brothers movie) are a perfect choice to convey the incomprehensible horror we feel knowing that Obama has continued the Bush administration’s detention policies – and who knows what else? Certainly the present administration hasn’t been tougher on the Wall St. Fat Cats or Big Oil than his predecessor. And that fear – that paranoia – is what activates the humor in That Old Soft Shoe. If Senator Corpuscle seems to be talking in circles, or if Horace’s new torture method, developed at West Point and called “COMFORT,” sounds like Orwellean NewSpeak, well, it is.

What’s old is new again! Or maybe it’s just the same old song and dance. As Senator Corpuscle says, “Status quo, fuck you! I am an agent for change! Like Bill O’Reilley, I am a centrist.”