It took Christopher Durang a full week at Yale School of Drama to find his muse. Oh, he had seen the striking, statuesque brunette in the cafeteria line at the Hall of Graduate Studies, but it wasn't until Sigourney Weaver read some of his stuff in a class that mixed playwrights with first-year actors that he knew she was the one.
By December of that semester she was starring in the Yale Cabaret in his one-act Better Dead Than Sorry, a crackpot play about a troubled musical-theatre family, in which she was the sister who sang the title song while undergoing shock treatment. She remembers it well and beams, "I made my own shock-treatment hat — out of tinfoil."
During rehearsal the actor playing her brother dropped out and Durang dropped in, beginning their long onstage relationship. "I was cast with her in plays I didn't write for the next two years. At the end of the first year the singing class put on a cabaret, and Sigourney and I sang 'Two Lost Souls' from Damn Yankees. We did it very deadpan, sitting, but, at one point, we stood up, and our height difference got a huge laugh. I'm 5-foot-7 and she says she's 5-foot-11 — but, put her in heels and there she goes."
Their latest collaboration — he at the keyboard, she at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater — is Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a what's-wrong-with-this-picture? title that promises a contemporary twisting of Chekhov. The first three characters (David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Weaver) are the offspring of college profs with a passion for Chekhov, and they're butting heads over the future of the family's Bucks County manse. Spike (Billy Magnussen) is the boy-toy of Masha, a famed actress plotting to pull the rug out from under her siblings.
|photo by T. Charles Erickson|
"It's not in any way a satire of Chekhov," Weaver is quick to caution. "It's really a Durang play that is also about many of the same Chekhovian themes, but it ends on a more tender and optimistic note. There is some despair in the play, yes, but it doesn't end in despair, as some (even very funny) Chekhovian plays do."
This, to date, is as close as she has come to doing one of those plays. "I've seen so much Chekhov over my life and been asked to play Chekhov so many times I feel like I've done him constantly, but, for whatever reasons, I haven't, so this is a nice entry."
She has figured out she has that in common with Masha, who, waylaid by success, is likewise Chekhov-free. "She had dreams, I think, of being a great Chekhovian stage actress and then was cast — and, I guess, she did a good job — in this movie about a serial killer. She made a string of those movies, and that sorta becomes who she is."
|Photo by T. Charles Erickson|
Weaver explains, "The play is about her arriving as a huge success and them all sorta figuring out, 'what is success at this point in your life? Is it being with the people you love, or is it having made a string of successful movies? What is it? Is it activity or inactivity?"
If that sounds like some Weaver reality woven into the writing of Masha, you may be right. "When I was young and at Yale — and a little after, I absolutely thought of her when I was writing," Durang admits. "I stopped doing it for two reasons. I actually wrote A History of the American Film, thinking of her for the lead, but the director didn't feel she was right for it, and she was disappointed. Later, I was able to get Sigourney in the part of Prudence in Beyond Therapy, the Off-Broadway version, but then I realized her movie career was doing so well there were few plays of mine she'd be available to do, so I just thought it was advisable not to specifically write with people in mind — although I will tell you, because it has worked out, in writing this particular play I really did think of Sigourney for Masha and Kristine for Sonia."
Weaver appreciates the tailoring. "I have had that good fortune of working with him more than any other writer, and I'd still love to do a few more like Laughing Wild and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.
"I'm such a fan of his. There's no one like him, with his wit and his anger and his sensitivity to the human condition."
Their closeness has been known to confuse people on occasion — one occasion being the bogus bios they put out while co-starring in Das Lusitania Songspiel. "Because we mixed some truth into it — by then, I had done A History of the American Film on Broadway and she had done 'Alien' in the movies — people bought it," reasons Durang. "We pretended we had performed on Broadway many times, and we use Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne's credits as our own. At the end, it said, 'In private life, Mr. Durang and Ms. Weaver are married and live in Connecticut with their daughters, Goneril and Regan.' We thought people would get it's a joke — but no." (This feature appears in the December 2012 Off-Broadway issue of Playbill magazine.)