Sharp-witted Tony Award-winning playwright Christopher Durang dies at 75

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Christopher Durang, a Tony Award-winning playwright and satirist whose blend of absurdist humor, sharp wit and philosophical explorations of anger, suffering, family and faith made him a mainstay of the American theater for more than four decades, died on April 2 at his Died at home. Pipersville, PA. He was 75 years old.

The cause, said his agent Patrick Herold, was complications from logopenic primary progressive aphasia, a neurodegenerative disease. Mr. Durang was diagnosed with the condition in 2016, but he continued writing, albeit slowly, for a few more years.

Although he was personally polite and unassuming, Mr. Durang was best known for plays that left audiences feeling confused and unsettled, marked by a sense of danger or existential angst, partly because of the grotesque. The humor was masked by surreal gags and verbally adept monologues.

His work was filled with cultural references (Mick Jagger, Patty Hearst and Bertolt Brecht) and satirized theatrical forms and institutions, poking fun at traditional sitcoms, soap operas and protest plays, as well as priests, physicians, mothers-to-be. He also criticized his father and other authorities.

Sometimes, he could find humor in even the darkest subjects. His black comedy “Miss Witherspoon” (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, tells the story of a depressed woman who dies by suicide, travels to the afterlife and refuses to be reincarnated, asking, “Why can’t I just be left alone to flourish and worry about my disembodied spirit state?” He described one of his later plays, the post-9/11 satire “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” (2009), as “a comic catharsis” after eight years of the George W. Bush administration. Described.

“Sometimes people are offended by my plays,” he said in an interview with theater scholar Arthur Holmberg. He said, no, no, this is a serious matter, there is no joking involved in it. But I like to mix serious with laughter. It’s a way of acknowledging that the stories we’re all involved in are crazy.”

Mr. Durang drew on his Catholic school studies for the religious satire “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” (1979), his first commercial hit. The title character, a dogmatic nun, lectures the audience on the basic tenets of her faith before being interrupted by a group of angry former students. A verbal skirmish ensues, along with a little senseless violence: when one of her former students reveals he is gay, Sister shoots him dead and declares, “I’ve sent him to heaven!”

The play ran off-Broadway for more than two years, with a cast led by the comically icy Elisabeth Franz as Sister Mary. (Upon discovering that one of her wards has a brain tumor and she is overcome with fear, she replies impatiently: “Now I thought I’d already told you what happens after death. Heaven, There is hell and misery. What’s the problem?”)

Mr. Durang’s other notable plays include “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (1985), an almost implausibly lighthearted comedy inspired by the relationship between his alcoholic father and his mother, who struggled with depression and She had given birth to dead children several times. On the stage, children’s bodies were thrown on the floor by doctors; The mother keeps a calendar recording the days when her husband is “half-drunk” or “drunk.”

The play demonstrated what The New York Times theater critic Frank Rich described as Mr. Durang’s “special ability to wrap the horrors of life in the primary colors of absurdist comedy,” and earned him the second of three Off-Broadway Obie Awards. Awarded.

Nearly three decades later, he won a Tony Award for Best Play for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a darkly comic tribute to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The play premiered in 2012 and moved to Broadway the following year, starring his longtime friend Christine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.

Set at a Bucks County, Pa., farmhouse that resembled Mr. Durang’s own country home, the drama focused on the relationship between three depressed siblings, including a middle-aged Vanya who is living in the 21st century. Fights against the humiliation of life and mourns its demise. Of a kinder, gentler era when “we licked postage stamps.”

The play became Mr. Durang’s biggest hit, making him feel like he’d won the lottery when it was picked up by more than two dozen area theaters. He speculated that its success may have been due to its ending, which he described as “promising, or at least not dark” – a far cry from earlier plays such as “Sister Mary”.

He told the Times, “I’m not deliberately trying to be commercial, but in my later years, the world seems so troubling that I seek relief by doing something.” You walk out of the theater feeling a little relieved that the worst things didn’t happen to the characters.”

Christopher Ferdinand Durang was born on January 2, 1949 in Montclair, NJ. His mother was a secretary, and his father was an architect who fought in World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. They They separated when he was 13.

“It was hellish to be around him,” Mr. Durang recalled in an introductory essay to “Christopher Durang Explains It All for You,” which collected six of his plays. “I never knew when they would start screaming.”

His mother took him to musicals at the Paper Mill Playhouse in nearby New Jersey, and at the age of 8, Mr. Durang wrote his first play, which was two pages long and “more or less plagiarized,” he said. “Lucy” episode from “I Love” where Lucy has a baby.”

After graduating from Benedictine High School, he studied English at Harvard College, where he fell into a deep depression, which was made worse by his parents’ divorce and the realization that he was gay. Time when homosexuality was still widely criminalized.

By his senior year, he had rediscovered his love of theater, attending a seminar with playwright William Alfred and producing a musical parody of the Gospels, including “The Dove That Done Me Wrong” sung by the Virgin Mary. ” included songs like. When a Jesuit priest complained in a letter to the student newspaper, calling Mr. Durang a “pig trampling in the sanctuary,” he took it as a badge of honor—including the letter, by his own account, as part of his application. As Yale School of Drama.

Mr. Durang graduated from Harvard in 1971 and received a master’s degree from Yale in 1974, the same year he staged his play “The Idiot’s Karamazov” – in collaboration with fellow playwriting student Albert Ionaurato – at the Yale Repertory Theatre. . The production starred Meryl Streep, another Yale student, as translator Constance Garnett.

Four years later, Mr. Durang entered Broadway with the short-lived musical “A History of the American Film,” a hyperkinetic tour of Hollywood cinema that included references to nearly 200 films. The production earned him a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical, although critics’ reception of the show was mixed.

Critic Richard Eder wrote in the Times, “Like a circus car driven by clowns, propelled by soap bubbles and…banging wheels, Christopher Durang’s drama wobbles and screams through nearly 60 years of American movies.” “Sometimes it stops or stops, but it always starts again.”

Mr. Durang received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979. In the wake of “Sister Mary”, he had mixed success in plays, including the psychiatric send-up “Beyond Therapy” (1981), which had a short run on Broadway and was adapted into a play. Robert Altman’s film, and “Laughing Wild” (1987), a comic two-hander that ran off-Broadway for less than three weeks. The show’s disappointing reception led him to leave the city for a rented house in Connecticut, where he lived for three years.

“I was really intimidated by the New York criticism,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, the year he returned to Broadway with “Sex and Longing,” another bad comedy. “It was cumulative,” he said. .

For a time, Mr. Durang supported himself by taking acting jobs. He had performed on stage since the 1970s, leading the cabaret show, “Das Lusitania Songspiel”, in which he and Weaver re-imagined Broadway shows such as “Evita” in the style of German theatrical collaborator playwright Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. Was done.

Mr. Durang later played small roles in film comedies, starring Michael J. He also had a role as a business executive in “The Secret of My Success” (1987) starring Fox, and also appeared as the narrator in some of his plays. in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and as the Cloaked Baby of Prague in “Laughing Wild”.

From 1994 to 2016, he co-chaired the playwriting program at the Juilliard School in New York with Marsha Norman. She also led a writing workshop for grown children of alcoholics.

Mr. Durang’s only immediate survivor is the writer and actor John Augustine, with whom he performed in a cabaret show called “Chris Durang and Dawnay.” Mr. Durang said Augustin, who has been his partner since 1986 and her husband since 2014, had a “sunny nature” who “opened up positive emotions, possibilities, intuition,” helping to rejuvenate his life and work. helped.

When he was starting out as a playwright, “I had a bad message in my mind that nothing ever works,” Mr. Durang recalled in a 2006 interview with the Harvard Crimson. “I still have that message. Although now I’m older, I take a nap or tell myself to calm down.

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