When the Senate Select Intelligence Committee released its report last month detailing just how enhanced the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” got during the Bush administration’s war on terror, the least surprising response was probably Dick Cheney’s. The former vice president first said the report was “full of crap”; then, a few days later, he vehemently defended the interrogation and detention program as entirely justified and legal. In other words, I didn’t do it—and I’d do it again.
Well, what did you expect? Remorse? I’m pretty sure that’s not a part of the Cheney doctrine. More curious, though, has been the response of the American people, who have not as yet made much of a push for reform or accountability, despite the news that agents acting on our behalf regularly subjected detainees to beatings, mock executions, waterboarding, and something called “rectal rehydration,” among other forms of humiliation and abuse that sure sound like torture to me. Polls indicate the public has come to tolerate this sort of thing, even though abusive methods have proven ineffective as intelligence-gathering tools.
Our acceptance of torture when it comes to fighting terrorism is one of the main themes of Ken Prestininzi’s Cookie Play, a new dark comedy currently at Trap Door Theatre. Though the play never develops much beyond its premise, at least it’s an interesting premise: an ordinary married couple allows their suburban home to be used as a secret “black site” by the CIA. It’s a potent metaphor for the way we countenance cruelty for the sake of homeland security. At one point, we see the husband and wife watching television in their living room as muffled screams come from the basement. As if that weren’t disturbing enough, the prisoner being worked over down there is the couple’s own son.
It all starts when Harriet and Jim Penini (Lyndsay Rose Kane and Chris Popio) of Dearborn, Michigan, are paid a visit by two black-suited government agents (Mike Steele and Carl Wisniewski), both named Frank. They’ve got a series of vaguely menacing questions having to do with the Peninis’ twentysomething son, Tommy (Gage Wallace): Is he a Muslim? What did he study in college? Why did he take a trip to the Middle East? and so on. Soon we learn that Tommy, while working as a computer analyst for the “mother agency,” has stolen classified information with the goal of revealing to the world certain unnamed government secrets. But unlike the similarly situated Edward Snowden, Tommy hasn’t managed to flee the country and is in CIA custody.
Jim and Harriet are eager to show their cooperation and patriotism, assuring the Franks that they’re devout Christians who voted for Ronald Reagan. So eager are they to demonstrate their cooperation, in fact, that they agree to let the agents bring Tommy home and interrogate (read: torture) him where he grew up.
But like so much else in Prestininzi’s unfocused script, this development, while intriguing, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even within the heightened reality of the play, and doesn’t really lead anywhere. Presumably the Franks are trying to gain a psychological advantage over Tommy by involving his parents. But Harriet and Jim aren’t allowed to see their son while he’s held in the basement, and Tommy doesn’t even know he’s in his parents’ house until the confused and confusing climax.
In any case, Jim eventually objects to the arrangement and is shipped off, not entirely with his consent, to a golf retreat in Arizona. Harriet is left behind to host a kind of nightmare slumber party, treating the Franks to juice boxes and endless trays of cookies while they grow increasingly petulant over Tommy’s refusal, despite all the beatings, to tell them where he hid the secret-laden thumb drives.
In Kate Hendrickson’s intentionally exaggerated production (this is the fourth time she’s staged one of Prestininzi’s works at Trap Door), Kane plays Harriet as a typically chipper sitcom mom, though she plants hints of strain and anguish behind the wide smile permanently frozen on her face. We’re meant to see that Harriet loves her son and believes she’s acting in his best interest (at least he’s not at Guantanamo), but her misplaced trust in authority blinds her to the fact that she’s consenting to his destruction.
Despite Kane’s admirable efforts and Hendrickson’s flair for combining pathos and zany cruelty, it’s clear that Prestininzi can’t figure out how to bring the situation to a head once he’s got Tommy installed in the house. There are surreal interludes and a couple uncharacteristically vengeful speeches from Harriet and lots of cookie eating and torture. But without any plot advancement or character development, the whole thing starts to feel static and repetitive. When Harriet finally makes a move to rescue her son, she seems motivated primarily by the author’s need to end the play.
The script’s satire of U.S. counterterrorism measures, meanwhile, settles for easy targets and blameless victims. Tommy is a sacrificial lamb brought on for no purpose but to suffer, while the cartoonish Frank and Frank have no purpose but to inflict the suffering. Filled with certitude and barely suppressed rage, they’re one-dimensional bullies who’d waterboard you as soon as look at you.