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Funny Man

The celebrated playwright Christopher Durang visits UAlbany

by B.A. Nilsson on March 12, 2014

 

We were given a look at a typical day for Christopher Durang in his 1987 video biography, a short, Showtime-commissioned film directed by Jerry Zaks and featuring cameos by Sigourney Weaver and Julie Hagerty, and Christine Estabrook as Durang’s wife (“I think he’s gay but won’t admit it to himself.”) One thing missing from that day: “I forgot to write!” he realizes.

Durang showed this clip during his evening seminar at the University at Albany last Monday as part of an autobiographical narrative that reminded us of the difficulty of explaining why a writer writes as he does—especially when his material is dark and funny. “I was influenced by Noël Coward,” he offered, “and Broadway shows like How to Succeed.” And he talked about the influence of Catholic school as an institution that “has an answer for everything,” even if those answers turn out to be insufficient.

Christopher Durang

But you’ll find more information about this in his play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You than was given in the seminar, which is only fitting: the work is where playwrights examine such problems. I suspect we seek out the seminar to discover whether a writer of such disturbing work as Durang has produced can remain a fit member of society.

We learned that the playwright is the great-great-great grandson of 18th-century performer John Durang, best known for dancing “Durang’s Hornpipe,” and that, wonderfully improbably, ASCAP once sent Chris a royalty check for a dollar-something “because they couldn’t find any other Durang to send it to.”

He began his playwriting career in second grade, when his school took an afternoon off to produce an I Love Lucy-inspired work. Somewhat later success came through Off-Broadway and regional productions of his work, which includes Beyond Therapy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Baby with the Bathwater, but he recently enjoyed Broadway’s crowning success by receiving a Tony Award for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Durang also is a performer, notably appearing in Putting It Together, a revue of Stephen Sondheim material—an experience that also lured him back to New York following a period of career frustration. And it was Durang the performer we saw Monday evening, a contrast to a more academically oriented and thus stilted session that afternoon.

Playing himself, Durang seemed at first as if he might be playing a character from one of his own plays—self-effacing, a little awkward, given to wry comments. As he read from the material he’d prepared, he’d occasionally stop himself to note, “What I have written here is, ‘If the audience isn’t too bored already, tell them about . . .  ’” before going on to the subject in question.

But the high points of the evening were his performances of his own work, beginning with the opening scene of his Glass Menagerie parody For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, giving him a dialogue between overbearing mother and socially withdrawn son (who collects glass swizzle sticks), and then a monologue excerpt from Laughing Wild, portraying a woman whose progress through the day is marked by one horrible and horribly funny human encounter after another.

Underpublicized and underattended, both sessions were a delight for the theater-aware audience. But I have to wonder if the university is deliberately keeping such events under wraps since it eliminated, to its shame, its theater major.