SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Playwright Christopher Durang

By Robert Simonson
06 Jun 2013

Christopher Durang
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Durang admits he is not good with outlines. So he doesn't always know what's going to happen in a play as he's composing it. So, Vanya's quasi-happy ending came as a surprise. "I didn't know it was going to go to an oddly sweet ending," he said. "Masha is suddenly nicer to her siblings."

Anyone who's ever met Christopher Durang is immediately struck by the difference between the writer and his writing. Durang comedies are among the most savagely satiric in the American theatre. Though wildly funny, the voice behind the jokes is one obviously furious with America, its vacuous culture, feckless mores and absent morals. The man himself, however, is the very picture of meek politeness. Small, soft-spoken and self-effacing to a fault, he's immediately likable, but seems more like a librarian than a satirist. (In his occasional acting forays, he's often cast as a priest.) Durang is the sort of fellow who writes plays that can't help but offend some part of the theatergoing public, but then worries if a single audience member is discomfited.

"I don't like to make audiences unhappy," he said, in all sincerity. It's a comment you'd never hear Edward Albee utter.

He recalled an early experience when his mother — who "did enjoy my plays, but she found some of them a little shocking" — brought a man and woman of her acquaintance to a performance. "They were very square and very conservative," recalled Durang. "I could see the husband getting up as if he had just seen something truly disgusting. His face looked so horrified. He was so horrified that it just made me laugh."

"When I write something," he continued, "I don't think, 'Oh, I'm going to offend someone.' And I'm always surprised when I do — which happened a lot when I was younger."

Still, he began to recognize that some audience members reacted to his plays "like they were stuck on a subway car with me and I was a maniac."

His 1981 play Beyond Therapy unexpectedly offered Durang a clue as to how to throw a lifeline to theatregoers unmoored by his parodic perspective.

"When Beyond Therapy was done, I was interested that the audience always liked the character of Prudence, because she's the normal one. She has some comedy of reaction, but the other people have the crazy lines. The audience just rooted for her."

Since then, he's tried to position a sane character in every one of his plays, someone the audience can cling to and identify with. In Betty's Summer Vacation, for instance, it's the put-upon Betty, whose holiday rental is beset with lunatics.

Betty's Summer Vacation marked the first time Durang used actress Kristine Nielsen. Since then, the zany actress has appeared in four additional Durang works, including Vanya, and become something of a standard bearer for the writer's wacky style.