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Monday, February 11, 2013

MY HERO WORSHIP OF CHRISTOPHER DURANG


ONE OF MY FAVORITE PLAYWRIGHTS, CHRISTOPHER DURANG

To me, Christopher Durang is a perfect example of why theater is a sport.  From his early parodies to his one-act absurd pieces, Mr. Durang's plays are bold, daring, funny (often in a darkly painful way), and full of energy.  Anyone who knows me well is aware of how energy is one of my favorite words and concepts, so perhaps it is only natural that I was drawn to Durang as soon as I was introduced to his work, and how he inspired me to want to write wild plays of my own.
I was a freshman in high school when I was cast in the lead role of The Actor's Nightmare, one of Durang's more mainstream, but still wildly funny, plays.  Once I recovered from the shock of being cast in the LEAD of the COMPETITION PLAY (completely rare and unexpected for a freshman), I hunkered down and read the script over and over again.

I never got tired of it.

The acting edition of The Actor's Nightmare is published by Dramatists with perhaps Durang's most successful (and controversial) one-act, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You (these two plays ran together on a doule bill Off-Broadway at the Westside Arts Theater, where it ran for a couple of years, marking the first time Durang could make a living as a playwright).  I devoured that play as well, darker and edgier than the play I was in, and it was all over--- my adoration was cemented.  I attacked my drama coach's file cabinet of perusal scripts, and read every Durang I could find.

I read and saw a lot of plays growing up.  My parents were very active in different community theaters, and I loved the very idea of plays.  I would check out collections of "America's Best Plays" by the decade from my hometown library.  But Durang's style was an eye-opener, and unlike anything I had ever read:  the absurdity, the dark comedy, the almost wildness of it all--- and, yet, all of these qualities seemed rooted in pain.  As I grew older, I would discover others (like Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad), but, for me, Durang was the first. 

My friends and I were all about dark humor and absurdity (being such a small circle on the outside looking in, this was most likely out of self-preservation).  We pushed our jokes to the most satirical ends possible, trying to one-up each other.  Reading Durang in high school made me feel like he could easily be my friend, obviously the smartest of a pretty smart group. 

When I started writing plays in college, I found myself pushing absurd, dark comedies, just like my hero.  I look back on these plays and admire the energy and glee I put into them.  Obviously, I was not trying to write "just like" Durang, but was trying to capture this kind of freedom he has in his work, this catharsis of lunacy and hurt, and find my own voice with it.  A kind of poking back at the world I felt had pushed me around pretty hard in my first nineteen or twenty years. 

During this period, these are the plays I loved by Mr. Durang (please note that these play contain naughty language and adult themes):

The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, a one-act variation on the story of Job, where two of God's agents torment a poor housewife with a truly miserable life;

and

The Vietnamization of New Jersey, a full-length parody of the plays of David Rabe, where a "normal" American family's life is blown apart when the oldest son returns from Vietnam blind and with a "Vietnamese" wife.  This play is giddily outside the realm of political correctness, it makes me want to cheer.

Of course, I like all of Durang's plays:  Beyond Therapy (his most mainstream, but still hilarious), Baby With the Bathwater (an absurd play about parents who have no business raising a child), and all of his many one-acts, which are anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour long.  And reading the two fine collections of his plays (volume I features 27 one-act plays, Volume 2, his complete full-length plays up until 1995) is a true treat for a fan like me, as Mr. Durang opens each play with some biographical notes about the writing of each of his plays.  These notes are so charming and generous, it feels like you have made a new friend who happens to be a bit of a twisted playwright.

As it so happens, reading these plays now, I would have to say my two favorites are The Marriage of Bette and Boo, a semi-autobiographical piece about his parent's unhappy marriage (which deserves far more productions, in my humble opinion), and the aforementioned Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You.  Oh, and on a side-note, The Actor's Nightmare is a very popular play with high schools, and is produced all over the country every year.  Aside from its humor, it is also educational in its send-ups of Hamlet, Noel Coward's Private Lives, Samuel Beckett, and A Man for All Seasons.

About a month ago, I was feeling very dry in my own writing, and a little glum about my creative source.  So I went back and re-read my Durang collections, and almost immediately felt a sense of renewal.  Durang himself has stepped away from writing for some "fallow" periods, and always seems to emerge reinvigorated.  In fact, as I was reading him all over again, I searched the web and found that his latest play, Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike has received rave reviews, and has a stellar cast, including Sigourney Weaver (Durang's old friend from Yale Drama School and frequent collaborator) and David Hyde Pierce (who appeared in Beyond Therapy as one of his first professional theater gigs).  I read that this new play will be moving to Broadway for a 17-week engagment.  I was so happy for Mr. Durang--- he's never been exactly a "fit" for Broadway.  His two plays to make it to a Broadway production in the 80s had a combined run total of  a month or so.  If he were my friend (and, yes, I wish he were), I would be so proud and happy that he is finally getting some decent Broadway recognition.  From what I understand, this limited engagement begins some time in March, so if anyone wants to get mea belated birthday gift....

In any case, it makes me happy to share my geeky fan boy feelings about Christopher Durang.  If you had never heard of him before reading my post, I am happy to have introduced you to him.  If you were already a fan, please feel free to comment below about your favorite Durang works. 

To learn much more about Christopher Durang, follow this link to his website:  www.christopherdurang.com

To learn more about Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike, follow this link to a video about it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THhCO3dN8Hs

Thank you for reading this post of Theater is a Sport.  Come back tomorrow for my very first online playwriting lesson!

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Oh, yes--- please remember:  Theater is a sport.

1 comment:

  1. I found this very interesting. I always wanted to play Sister Mary Ignatius. I saw the play done many years ago, and it captured my imagination.

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