I’m sitting across from playwright Christopher F. Durang ’71 in a vinyl booth at New York City’s Utopia Diner on Amsterdam Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Street. It is a familiar venue for both of us. The diner is a few blocks away from my apartment building, which was once the residence of one of Durang’s oldest friends and most frequent collaborators, Sigourney Weaver. It’s almost as close to Lincoln Center Theater, where Durang’s latest play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is receiving its Broadway debut.
This 63-year-old playwright—known for his blending of cruelty and comedy, reality and satire—is surprisingly serene. “On the outside [Durang] is such a sweet, smiley man, and you would have no idea that his mind is filled with donuts and dead babies,” says Genevieve Angelson, who plays Nina in “Vanya.” Torture, stillbirth, and crises of faith are all landmarks of Durang’s dark terrain. But a shift has occurred at the heart of this American absurdist’s work. Durang’s recent work exhibits a new optimism. “Vanya” ends with the three Chekhovian siblings—Vanya, Sonia, and Masha—swaying their heads in unison along to The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun.” The happy ending is a tenuous one given the dynamic between the siblings, and it is a self-consciously stark contrast to Chekhov’s typical treatment of his characters. But the positive tone is much more than a comment on Chekhov: it represents a new direction for Durang’s style.
I have always admired Durang’s ability to depict characters who respond to feelings of sadness verging on horror with a bark-like laugh rather than simple tears. His new work still lies at this nexus of pain and laughter, but the darker tenor that I was initially drawn to as a playwright and an audience member is lightening. Durang is far from the only dark comedian in contemporary theater. What’s made him special for me is his ability to blend the poignant, preposterous, and tragic in a single style while also investing his characters with his own vulnerability. How can his optimistic turn preserve this delicate balance? In order to understand the shift in Durang’s approach, I decided to meet the man himself to ask him what’s changed.
Durang eyes the book on which my recorder rests in order to muffle the clatter of silverware against the linoleum tabletop. “Lamont Library, Harvard University” is stamped across the pages of the book—a collection of his works. Durang, who struggled with depression that crippled his ability to write during his time at Harvard, now has a place on the shelves of his alma mater’s library.
Durang has come to terms with the depression that threatened his undergraduate career at Harvard. At the time he was struggling with the loss of his Catholic faith and the discovery of his homosexuality. His rocky childhood was another psychological battlefield. Durang was born to an alcoholic architect and a homemaker—both Catholic—in 1949 in New Jersey. Due to a blood incompatibility, his mother suffered through three stillbirths. “I didn’t know back then why I was depressed, but you know sometime in later therapy I realized that it was…from my parents not being able to stop arguing, not being able to figure out how to live together and similar things happening with my mother’s extended family,” Durang says. “I had this thing as a child—I’m not sure if mantra is the right word—but this unconscious thing that nothing ever works out.’”
It took until junior year at Harvard for him to begin conquering his demons. After a promising start, however, he relapsed into depression and began skipping classes again. He often filled his time with watching films. “At Harvard I became so fascinated with movies. This actually sounds made up as I say it, but I think I saw a movie every day I was at Harvard,” he says. This love of films has informed a number of Durang’s plays and characters, including the manic housewife Luella, who uses movies and theater as a form of escapism.
In the summer of his junior year, Durang challenged his self-defeating behavior again. He got a job as a tutor and stayed in Cambridge in order to make up a poetry class he had failed the previous semester. “I fixed something,” Durang says. He cites this newfound confidence and his therapy at Harvard as instrumental to his upturn. Overcoming the writer’s block that plagued his earlier undergraduate years, Durang finally had his work performed at Harvard. “The Greatest Musical Ever Sung,” a spin on the greatest story ever told—the life and death of Jesus—was performed at his upperclassman house, Dunster. It received a positive review in The Harvard Crimson, though some students did not approve of the poster, which featured a pregnant Virgin Mary and a winking dove. Letters were signed against the play due to its irreverent tone. A Jesuit priest even wrote a letter to The Harvard Crimson calling Durang “a pig trampling in a sanctuary.”
The moral outrage provoked by “Greatest Musical” was only the beginning. Durang’s next play, “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe,” would gain him admission to a seminar with his favorite Harvard professor, playwright and scholar William Alfred, and Yale Drama School. But it also earned Durang biting criticism from those who felt his writing was senselessly cruel. “Some of my earlier plays really scared people,” he says.
BLACK AND BLUE COMEDY
“Nature and Purpose” was inspired by an actual acquaintance of Durang’s mother: a Catholic housewife in her twenties with five children whose husband forced her to have sex with him while he was drunk. “She went to a parish priest and said, ‘May I have birth control in case he rapes me?’ The priest was very nice, thought about it, and said no,” Durang says. “That was my idea of hell: her life.”
The world of the play’s protagonist, the constantly battered and belittled Eleanor, does resemble hell. “It was my version of the Book of Job but obviously very non-realistic and very gleeful, which is really strange. But I felt this enormous relief because there is such a distance from what I was writing,” Durang says. “You feel like, ‘I’ve made something sense out of something that was chaos.’” Though Eleanor’s suffering disturbed some, the absurdist tone makes this personal destruction palatable, if not entertaining.
Nicholas Martin, the director of “Vanya” who has worked with Durang on two of his other play premieres, believes that this tonality makes Durang a theatrical pioneer. “I feel like what Chris did along with John Guare and to some degree Albert Innaurato was to begin the American tradition of theater of the absurd, which began in France with Beckett and Ionesco,” Martin says. “I’m not sure they get yet the kind of recognition for starting the style of theater and kind of play that rivaled those European writers in terms of the balance of savagery and hilarity and the balance of reality and satire.”
This style is not for the faint of heart; though the plays can pivot from pitch-black to zany heights in an instant, they are still grounded in reality. “In Chris’ plays, you know, you can’t just have wacky sets and cartoon characters as I’ve often seen done. They won’t work that way,” Martin says. According to the director, embracing the—at times gleeful—violence is necessary. “You still have to have the savagery of Chris available to you,” he says. “It’s a tightrope in any of his plays.”