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

By Robert Simonson
06 Jun 2013

Christopher Durang
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
The two met during an ill-fated 1989 revival of Alfred Jarry's anarchic play Ubu at Lincoln Center Theater. Both were in the cast. "She got all her laughs in a play in which there were almost no laughs," remembered Durang. "I was impressed by that. We had a long preview period and long tech period. Kristine and I used to listen to the first scene every night, just hoping it would work in terms of laughs, which it never did. And we started to feel like the town gossips. We had a lot of time offstage so we just became friends."

Durang does not keep individual actors in mind when creating characters, but says, "I broke my rule with this particular play, because I just felt the part of Sonia in Uncle Vanya is just such a heartbreaking part. I knew I was going to write something comic, and I knew how funny Kristine can be. Kristine just being bitter, bitter, bitter, bitter would be funny." Nielsen has been nominated for Tony Award for her performance.

This is only Durang's second Tony Award nomination. His first was for A History of the American Film, way back in 1978. He went to the ceremony with his friend and fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The show, which enjoyed a rare joint world premiere at three different nonprofit theaters — Hartford Stage, Mark Taper Forum and Arena Stage — ran for only 21 performances on Broadway.

"It was an interesting learning curve," he said of the experience, which involved trying to fit the Arena set into the enormous ANTA Playhouse. "I was certainly disappointed, but I did know that it didn't quite work."

A History of the American Film had many scene changes, making it a design challenge. Vanya, in contract, has a single set. Durang spies an irony in this.

"It's — weirdly — a well-made play," he said of Vanya. "Will they keep the house? Will they lose the house? It has more structure. Also, it's one set. Although I like a lot of the plays from the 1950s, when I was in college and drama school I was wanting to break rules. This seems to me traditionally written, in a way."

Like all good playwrights, Durang drew on his own life in creating the plot of Vanya. To shape the relations of the spatting siblings Vanya, Sonia and Masha, he turned to memories of his parents. "I don't have any siblings. But both of my parents did. I want to choose this time to not say which side of the family argued over time. But they definitely inspired me in terms of siblings who argue."

As for the character of vain and selfish movie star Masha, played on Broadway by Sigourney Weaver, Durang drew on his relationship with longtime friend Weaver herself. "Once she started making movies, I had to get used to the fact that I wouldn't hear from her for six months," he said. "She tended to be in a lot of foreign countries. I got used to it, but the siblings in the play are resentful of it."

Even the blue heron that visits the pond outside the house in Vanya is an echo of a bird who frequents a pond near Durang's own Bucks County home. "But he hasn't been lately," Durang noted. "It worries me."

Ah. There's that Durang edge.