Monday, April 8, 2024

Christopher Durang, 1949-2024

Christopher Durang and E. Katherine Kerr in Laughing Wild, in 1987.

It’s hard to imagine a more tragic-ironic fate for the playwright Christopher Durang than the disease from which he suffered for the last eight years of his life, logopenic primary progressive aphasia, which renders its victims unable to find the words they need to express what they want to say. (He died of complicated from the illness on April 2.) Durang was one of the great wits of contemporary American drama. His plays are outrageous and uproarious. In terms of style he’s an absurdist, but his work isn’t like that of any other absurdist; itis wildly playful and manically inventive, and it runs on pretzel logic. In Beyond Therapy the two protagonists are a newly formed couple whose road to happiness is blocked as much by their shrinks as by the man’s inability to give up his gay lover – his shrink is a bona fide fruitcake while hers has been sleeping with her. One of the main characters in Betty’s Summer Vacation is a serial killer. The characters in the two-hander Laughing Wild wind up in overlapping dreams:  she dreams that she has murdered and then replaced the talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael and he dreams that he shows up on her talk show dressed as an obscure Catholic figure called the Infant of Prague.

When he wrote satire, Durang’s main target was the Catholic Church, especially in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo. But he was just as often a parodist who set his sights on many of the things he loved: Chekhov (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Dostoevsky (The Idiots Karamazov), the Hollywood musical (A History of the American Film), Tennessee Williams (For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls), Brecht and Weill (Das Lusitania Songspiel, on which he collaborated with his close friend Sigourney Weaver, who starred for him in Sex and Longing and Vanya and Sonia). He produced an amazing number of scripts – full-length plays, one-acts, skits, monologues. Sometimes he acted in them himself:  he played Matt, the narrator/protagonist in Bette and Boo, and Man in Laughing Wild opposite E. Katherine Kerr, then Jean Smart and finally Debra Monk. Those of us who saw him in those roles were doubly fortunate, since he was a highly accomplished comic actor who lit up a variety of movies and TV episodes in supporting roles. (I’m especially fond of him in the Michael J. Fox pictures Life with Mikey and The Secret of My Success.)

The most distinctive element of Durang’s plays is their tone, a combination of quizzical and beleaguered. The archetypal Durang character is a serious head scratcher struggling to work out life’s contradictions and iniquities, and those tended to be the parts he wrote for himself. In the second monologue of Laughing Wild Man is presenting at a self-help conference. He has been fighting nobly to stick to the self-help gospel, to keep positive, reminding himself to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, but his everyday frustrations keep interfering with his affirmations. He reports to his audience on an encounter he had with a lunatic (Woman) in the supermarket who bonked him on the head with a tuna fish can because he was taking too long choosing one. (We’ve already heard the story from Woman’s point of view.) Between the dramatic scenes of Bette and Boo, which is about a middle-class Catholic family for whom the word “dysfunctional” seems woefully inadequate, Matt, the son of the titular characters, addresses the audience as he tries to understand their disastrous marriage. But he hits a wall whenever he seeks to locate the source of the trouble:  is Bette a bully because Boo is a hopeless alcoholic, or the other way around? First an undergraduate and then a grad student studying the novels of Thomas Hardy, he strives desperately to fit Hardy’s characters, who act according to an ordered nineteenth-century literary approach, onto his parents and his aunts and grandparents, as if analyzing Eustacia Vye might help him get to the heart of Bette. But he only ends up more befuddled than ever.

The original Broadway production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

Bette and Boo is autobiographical; Matt is a version of Durang himself. It’s his best play, but that doesn’t come close to according it its due. It’s a masterpiece that mixes not just comic and tragic moods and a wide variety of tones but even styles, theatre of the absurd with psychological realism. Bette gives birth to Matt, whom she insists on calling Skippy after a Jackie Cooper movie she loved as a child. She longs for more children, but all of her subsequent babies are stillborn. Yet she keeps trying, though the deaths plunge her into depression. In the hospital scenes, the stillbirths are represented by dolls that the doctor (always the same one) tosses distractedly onto the floor. When I directed the play at College of the Holy Cross three decades ago, my actors could never predict how an audience would respond to these scenes and some of the others, like a family Thanksgiving where Boo gets plastered and he and Bette stage an epic fight. Some nights they would draw howls of laughter, other nights dead silence.

I knew Durang a little; I met him about twenty years ago and we stayed in touch on and off for a few years. He liked something I’d written about Bette and Boo and asked if he could put it up on his website. Shortly afterwards my department brought him to campus for a couple of days to interact with our theatre students – they adored him, just as they’d always adored his plays – and he read an excerpt from his latest work in progress, which turned into Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. While he was in residence we bonded over movies and especially over Pauline Kael’s reviews. (Kael and Durang never met, as far as I know, but they were mutual admirers.) He was a sweet, gentle man whose usual demeanor didn’t jibe with the craziness of his plays, but he had an impish, somewhat eruptive side that did, and it came out every now and then. The acting edition of Bette and Boo contains an author’s note that carefully instructs prospective directors on the way to stage the play.  In it he explains that he isn’t in the habit of including a guidebook to his own work but that he was once invited to the opening of a production that was so wrongheaded it made him crazy. I was pretty sure from his description I had seen this production – that it was, in fact, my initial experience with the play, and it was so wretched that I couldn’t see past it and, for a few years, I just wrote off Bette and Boo. Then, for some reason I no longer recall, I opted to take a look at the archival recording of the Public Theatre production, directed by Jerry Zaks, with Durang leading a superlative cast, and realized what I’d missed. My first email exchange with Durang began calmly. Then I told him that story and ventured my suspicion that I’d seen the terrible show that had spurred his author’s note. His next email was all in caps: “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU SAW THAT PRODUCTION!!! THANK GOD YOU DECIDED TO WATCH THE RECORDING!!!” That side of him showed up on one or two other occasions, and it made me laugh in the way that his funniest plays did.

The silly, anarchic quality of plays like Why Torture Is Wrong and Betty’s Summer Vacation and Baby with the Bathwater and the sublimely ridiculous and clever An Actor’s Nightmare, where some poor bastard keeps finding himself on stage in the middle of a play he’s never rehearsed (it gave Durang the perfect opportunity burlesque Hamlet, Private Lives, A Man for All Seasons and Samuel Beckett), has tended to make him underrated, as if somehow he had a miniature talent. And perhaps because it is so different from his farces, The Marriage of Bette and Boo has never made it onto most theatre lovers’ radar. It is, I would say, the greatest American family play this side of O’Neill and Odets. A renewal of interest in it would be the happiest tribute I can envision to Christopher Durang.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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