Durang has never shied away from the foibles and lunacies of America and its occupants. Our crazy ways with religion, family, tabloid culture and the attitude toward death have been addressed by him with savage wit and trenchant absurdism in, respectively, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Betty's Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon. Moreover, he attacks weighty matters not with speeches, but with satire and laughter — something audiences are undoubtedly seeking this dark days. That Durang has been thinking about recent events is telegraphed at once by title of his new work, Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them, now playing at the Public Theater. (Apparently, one of the national ills that irk Durang is poor sentence structure.) The soft-spoken, genial writer spoke to Playbill.com after a recent early preview of the play.
Playbill.com: Do you consider Why Torture Is Wrong one of your more ambitious works?
Christopher Durang: Well, the structure of it ultimately ends up being rather ambitious. I guess the other thing is I think of it as a political play and I haven't written too many of those.
Playbill.com: Which would you consider your political plays? Is Betty's Summer Vacation a political play?
CD: I guess in a way it was. It was not really about the government. It was about a sort of tabloid interest from the public. I don't really think of Sister Mary Ignatius as a political play, although I think authoritarianism does run through our society to some degree. I guess the considered failure of Sex and Longing was a political play. That sort of didn't come together. And an unpublished play of mine that was done at A.R.T. called Media Muck was also a political play of a sort.
Playbill.com: Why Torture Is Wrong was obviously inspired in part by the goings-on in Washington over the past eight years. I'm interested in Felicity, the hero, or central figure, of the play, which is played by Laura Benanti. She reminded me of the character played by Kelly Overbey in Betty's Summer Vacation. They're both these somewhat placid figures of reason amid the chaos of the other characters. Are they supposed to be stand-ins for you, or just for Reasonable America?
CD: (Laughs) Well, I think you're right, that Betty and Felicity are not really too crazy at all. They're meant to stand in for reasonable people. I think they do have a lot of me in them. One may ask, why do I write me as a woman so frequently? (Laughs) Or, I'm asking myself. Growing up, there were four very strong women in my wife — my mother, her two sisters, and my grandmother. What I'm about to say lets you know I'm a little bit of a crackpot. I've been to astrologers. I went to one reputedly very good astrologist who was doing my birth chart. And he said, "Did you have a strong woman in your life growing up?" I said, "Actually, four." He said, "Oh, that makes me feel better. Because the maternal side of your chart is so strong, it would be really alarming if one person had all that energy." But I've found, in my absurdist plays in particular, I draw on the women I grew up with a lot. Anyway, what I was going to say is, although my mother had her quirky side, one of the things she had that I think ended up did me well in this family system, is she was often the truth-teller and she would confront the other people who were doing something odd. Now she was not diplomatic, so her confronting them never worked. (Laughs) But I did grow up knowing there was another interpretation of what was happening. And I've had a few friends who came from families where there were some crazy people, and the non-crazy people didn't say anything about it. So, as a child, those friends of mine grew up feeling really uncertain. Luella in my play says, "I don't think I know what normal is." In some of the alcoholism programs they refer to people growing up in that family system as having to guess at what normal is. Anyway, so there's also a big part of my mother's truth-teller in those characters.
Playbill.com: Someone who can stand up in the play and say "You're behaving badly."
CD: Right. And the other thing that I've found, it happened on a particular play of mine, Baby With the Bathwater. It was done at Playwrights Horizons in 1983. It was in their small studio space, where you can only have an audience of 70. If you have 30 in the 70 who don't like it, they can actually dominate, because it's a small group. Whereas, if you had 30 who didn't like it in 200, it wouldn't matter as much. When we had a young audience, I found the play would get lots of laughs. But when we had an older audience, I found that act one would sometimes not get a single laugh. It was really alarming. I'd look around and think, "I don't think it's anything the actors are doing." But then that same audience who didn't laugh in Act One, laughed in Act Two. What I realized happened in Act Two of that play was, there was a scene in a playground, and the crazy mother is yelling at the child off-stage, and there are two women on the bench with her. One of them, played by Dana Ivey, was a sort of sharp-tongued but sensible mother who kept challenging the crazy mother on her behavior. I realized that the quiet, older audience had been scared by all the crazy characters in Act One, and they were afraid I was going to get into physical abuse, which I did not. So I registered the idea that I could reach a larger group of people if there was a sane character in the play. So often I will purposely put in a sane character. Playbill.com: You have a talent for having characters say things that are said all the time in our society, but when they say them, the statements are hilarious. For instance, the character of the hawkish father rails against the United Nations and calls the French Toast "Freedom Toast." Conservative Americans actually do say such things.
CD: That's an interesting perception, because one of the things I discovered about Sister Mary Ignatius early in my career — that is a rare play that is partially about dogma. Some of the stuff I wrote down was simply dogma. Some of the laughs in that play I didn't know would be laughs. I just thought I was putting out the information. I do think there's a kind of context. I guess when somebody complains about the United Nations in a talk show, it's different than a father and daughter complaining about it.
Playbill.com: The ending of this play is pretty optimistic for you, as far the human race's ability to change and get along with each other, and even about the kind of place that Hooter's can be. Did you make a conscious choice that you were not going to take this play to its darkest end?
CD: I mostly write intuitively and I don't usually have an outline. When I was writing this play, I did not know that it was necessarily going to involve torture. The title did not proceed the play, for instance. What I was intending to write about was the red state-blue state difference in the country, and I just sort of stumbling upon the idea of the drunken marriage, and wondering if you're married to a terrorist. The play just led me into the torture stuff, and I, like Felicity, could not imagine a positive outcome. And I did write it before Obama was elected, and it's not like our problems are over. And it's not like the red state-blue state tensions are not still there. Talk radio is still dominated by angry people on the right. But I just didn't want to end it in a dark, life-is-despairing way. So I end up going into fantasy. But, as you say, hopeful fantasy I guess.