SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Playwright Christopher Durang
By Robert Simonson
Every Broadway producer should be fortunate enough to have a playwright like Christopher Durang.
During a recent visit to Baltimore, the writer met a "charming woman" who happened to be on the board of that city's major nonprofit theatre, Centerstage. "We just had this rapport," Durang remembered. "I saw her the next day too. I knew we were looking for money."
By "we," he meant Joey Parnes, Larry Hirschhorn and the other producers who had decided to move his comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike from Lincoln Center Theatre's tiny Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre to Broadway.
"I wrote her and asked her if she'd be interested," he related. "Isn't that shocking?" Actually, it is — almost more shocking that the bad behavior Durang's characters typically exhibit in his sharp satires. Usually, dramatists don't soil their hands with the dirty business of raising capital. But Durang's ad-hoc entrepreneurship paid off.
"She wrote me a lovely note back, saying, 'I've never considered Broadway before and I'd be happy to talk to your producers.' And then she put in some money! She and I are going to have tea soon as soon as my leg is better."
About that leg. Durang landed badly on his foot some weeks back and has been undergoing physical therapy ever since. For a period, he got around with a walker. Now, however, he is armed with a cane. The cane — along with his usual beard, and the suit and tie he's been forced to wear at many award ceremonies — lends him a dignified air, just in time for seems to be his Grand Old Playwright moment. The spring, Vanya has been granted top honors from the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League, Drama Desk and the New York Drama Critics Circle. The work is considered the front runner for this years Best Play Tony Award.
"Some of my plays are either too dark or too quirky for Broadway," said Durang, an understatement if there ever was one. Biting tirades and psychotic hysterics, occasionally peppered with acts of comic violence, are the stock and trade of the Durang canon. It's no wonder that most of his 40-year career has played out on Off-Broadway stages.
The writer thinks he knows why Vanya's fate has been more commercial.
"I feel this play has a sort of different tone than a lot of my plays do," he theorizes, after apologizing for taking a moment to assemble his answer. ("I'm having a complicated thought — for me.") "I didn't consciously do that. My jumping off point was, 'Oh my God, I'm the age of Uncle Vanya. I'm not one of the young people anymore.' I got thinking of that and I sort of had a thought — what if I had had a life like Uncle Vanya. I was born in New Jersey and I went to different schools and I've lived in New York. But Vanya just seems to live in the country and never gets out. I live in a nice place in Bucks County, but I moved there later. So my thought was, 'What if I had lived here all my life?'"
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.
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.
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