It's funny," says Christopher Durang, who knows from funny, "the plays I've written don't usually say, 'ENTER A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN.' This particular play does."
He is in a crowded Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan the Silk Road Palace talking of Sex and Longing, his latest antic now in previews at Broadway's Cort for a limited run through Nov. 19, from Lincoln Center Theater. (Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter is the other new American play being presented this season at the Cort.)
The mention of that title doesn't make any of the diners around him choke on their hot-and-sour soup, so he presses on discreetly. As for the "beautiful woman" in Sex and Longing, her emphasis is decidedly on the former like every 15 minutes but that, he adds speedily, waving it away as if it were a gnat interrupting a view of The Bigger Picture, "is obviously a surreal detail."
Fittingly enough (and fitting the crime), her name is Lulu from the same-named Frank Wedekind play, which Durang saw at an impressionable age in Yale Drama School. The image that stayed with him her constantly running out of her house for sex is the operative one for his new Lulu, who also gets her name from Pandora's Box, the silent-film version of Wedekind's play that Louise Brooks turned into a personal triumph. As you might suspect from the author of A History of the American Film, there are other names, other stage-and-screen illusions, beyond that: Lulu, we eventually learn, once worked under the alias of Sadie Thompson and had a certain sordid history of sinning 'n' backsliding, sinning 'n' backsliding, with a Reverend Davidson, now a televangelist who has organized with the rabidly conservative wife of a U.S. senator a right-winged march on the lusty likes of Lulu.
By some stretch of satiric imagination, three different themes interconnect in this comedy. First and frontally, there is the issue of sexual addiction, practiced here with much bedlam and abandon by Lulu and Justin-- the latter a gay friend she meets at a sexual-compulsives meeting and with whom she publishes a would-be "art book" entitled Explicit Photographs of the Last 300 People We Slept With.
Then, there is the calming flip side to all this sexual overactivity for want of a better word, the longing. "Maybe it's what soul is," Durang suggests. "It's this impulse to long for something nice, something good in the world." Finally, amid all of this quiet longing and loud acting out, a third county is heard from "the Christian right-wing who uses these sexual compulsives as examples of what's wrong with American morality. The ones in my play take it even further by trying to amend the Constitution in 25 different ways basically, to write Biblical conjunctions into the Constitution."
To be sure, there is some serious subtext to this comedic arm wrestle between the religious right and the erotic left. "I'd like the audience to take away with them the notion that everybody has longings; it's kind of a universal thing, something we all have in common," says Durang. "The senator's wife in some ways is an unsympathetic character to me because she is trying to control everybody; nevertheless, I have given her a speech where she talks about how she longs for morality, how she longs for a better-ordered society. I was sorta consciously doing that because I wanted to look for, and suggest, ways that she from her point of view and Lulu from her sexually out-of-control point of view had something in common. They're both looking for something that will make them feel happier and more whole. Forgive me if I sound too earnest, but I would hope that this play makes people think about the issue of tolerance tolerance for differences of opinion because there is a real connection of themes between this play and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, where the nun basically says, 'I know The Truth, and I know it so much that I actually have to impose it on you for your own better good.' "
With the noted exceptions of Jay Goede, who plays Justin, and Eric Thal, who executes three different roles, the cast comes thoroughly seasoned in past Durang harangues: Peter Michael Goetz, the therapist of his Broadway Beyond Therapy, is the hypocritical preacher; Dana Ivey, from Off-Broadway's Baby with the Bathwater, essays the senator's wife; and her spouse is played by Guy Boyd, the West Coast Boo in The Marriage of Bette and Boo. As for The Star . . .
ENTER, again, A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN. A gentle rattle of Durang's frame of reference, and out comes Sigourney Weaver to fill that billing. She first entered his life about this time 25 years ago when both were in Yale Drama School she in the acting department, he in the playwriting. Durang doesn't remember the specific day, just the ensemble. "She had unusual dressing tastes," he recalls. "The first time I saw her, she seemed to be wearing green ski pajamas, with pompons hanging off them, and I remember thinking, 'Who is this unusual-looking person?' She was very striking very tall and pretty."
Weaver soon wound up cast in one of Durang's plays, Daryl & Harold & Jenny & Penny, and when one of his actors fell out, he found himself cast in it, too. They co-starred in several college outings (some directed by Garland Wright, who's helming Sex and Longing) and, on occasion, "descended" deliriously into children's theatre where she played a brutal baroness and he was her faithful foil, a masochistic troll.
His Das Lusitania Songspiel, a crackpot Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht send-up, carried their teamwork into cabaret. He wrote her into A History of the American Film but couldn't convince the casting director of it. Then, Weaver started making a little American film history of her own, and producers became quicker to see her in parts that he wrote for her. She did Beyond Therapy Off-Broadway but opted for the film The Year of Living Dangerously instead of the Broadway run (a longer gig, as it unfortunately turned out). Now, the playmaker and the movie star are celebrating the silver anniversary of their highly productive friendship by joining hands and charging toward B'way for the first time. "I didn't sit down and specifically write Sex and Longing for her," Durang admits, "but about a third of the way in, I started to think, 'Gee, this would be a good part for Sigourney,' and then I had her in my mind as I kept doing it. Now, I'm thrilled that she is going to do it."