The marvelously manic Kristine Nielsen can catch every little curlicue in Christopher Durang's eccentric, tightly coiled psyche better and more completely than any actress going — a gift that makes her not only a muse, but amusing in the idiosyncratic extreme. One of a kind, these two. If you thought Durang's humor was a little off-center and out of control, just wait till you see Nielsen charge across the stage with it at full and literal tilt.
In fact, wait no longer. She's doing just that these days at Playwrights Horizons in her third Durang go-around, Miss Witherspoon, radically revising your idea of reincarnation.
Heretofore, they've confined themselves to seasonal insanity — Betty's Summer Vacation (1999, at Playwrights) and Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge (2002, in Pittsburgh). For Summer, she was Mrs. Siezmagraff, a self-absorbed anti-mother who hits the beach in high heels and gold lamé and rises to one deliriously bravura moment in which she plays all the characters in a Court TV trial. For Christmas, she was the too-often-overlooked Gladys Cratchit, who, fed up with her lame spouse and sunny son, decides to get drunk and jump off London Bridge, but opts instead to run off with Ebenezer Scrooge (in fact, they run all the way to another century, where they become Harry and Leona Helmsly).
No doubt by now you've deduced that Durang has a deranged take on the afterlife — a take that Nielsen scampers through with gleeful abandon as if it were gospel. Indeed, it's the most skewed view since the fly hopped a ride in that genetic transporter machine with Jeff Goldblum. Everything's more than just a little bit off: Jesus Christ looks to all the world like a big-hatted, broad-beamed African-American church lady, for handy example.
This level of loopiness is set early on by an actor in a Chicken Little suit rushing forth to announce that "the sky is falling." Nielsen's character simply revises that to read: "The Skylab is falling." The imagined pressure she feels — knowing a slightly used, abandoned experimental space station (America's first) could one day come crashing back to earth — drives her to suicide, where she's doomed to an afterlife of forced reincarnation, whether she likes it or not. She definitely doesn't — but at least, she reasons, she missed 9/11. Miss Witherspoon is an 85-minute postscript to a five-minute monologue called "Skylab" that was specifically created for a festival of short plays put together at Town Hall to mark the first anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster. "I couldn't think about how to write about 9/11," the playwright admits, "so I, for some reason, thought about Skylab and wrote this monologue about how upset this woman was about Skylab falling that she killed herself. At the time, I recall, I was mildly disturbed by the notion that they didn't know where or when it was going to fall. I thought, 'Oh, that's weird,' but it stayed with me. It actually did land in Australia in 1979, and it didn't hurt anybody. They'd said they thought it would land in the ocean. It just represented to me the scariness of what goes on in the world. Somebody makes one decision, and you can suffer because of it."
Emily Mann, artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre, commissioned this play expansion and wound up directing its world premiere, which has transferred intact from the McCarter to Playwrights Horizons. Given the fact-driven dramas she usually brings to New York (Execution of Justice, Having Our Say), she's one of the last people you'd expect to find skipping blithely into fantasyland, but she contends that's why she's perfect to give the piece its political underpinnings. "Chris and I have this really deep e-mail relationship that has a lot to do with politics," she says. "I think he asked me to direct the play because of that. His work is not just funny. He does the funny work for you — in the words — but this play needs a lot of depth under it, so we were a good match, he and I."
Nielsen, despite the precise fit, wasn't the image Durang had in mind in creating the play. "I actually envisioned somebody a little older when I was writing it," he says. "In truth, I had — this is just an image — Jessica Tandy at age 50 to 60, very distinguished looking. Then I realized I was thinking of how she was in Hitchcock's 'The Birds.' When I finally thought of Kristine for the part, that idea took over. She brings many unexpected colors to it."
Nielsen sees a throughline in the three ditzes that she has done for Durang so far. "They all have that same biting wit that cuts through everything and sees the world with great clarity and optimism," she says. "I think the one thing I share with Chris is optimism. Deep in his bones, he's always an optimist. I think that's a very important way to see the world of this play. It's so incredibly current — by happenstance. It's stunning to me because he's always slightly ahead of the curve. I think that's his gift to the theatre."