Christopher Durang has been writing plays at a maddening rate since he was a little boy (with time off in college to collect himself). In many ways, his plays chronicle the growth of boy to man who is constantly considering what is
happening in his and our world. Granted, with a skewed vision. And that has made all the difference. Durang’s is a unique point of view, sometime satiric, always comedic, that has made us laugh a lot, as well as recognize and empathize with his journey through life and think about our own.
McCarter Theater’s artistic director Emily Mann has described him by saying, "No one combines sharp social comedy, hilarious characters, and a touching storyline quite the way Christopher Durang does." Mann will direct the world premiere of his latest play, "Miss Witherspoon," which opens McCarter’s 2005-’06 season in the Berlind Theater.
Mann and Durang will discuss the play on Tuesday, August 23, at at Princeton Public Library. Previews begin on Friday, September 9, opening night is Friday, September 16, and the play runs through October 11. From Princeton, the play will go directly to Playwrights Horizons in New York City.
Two springs ago, Durang participated in a playwriting retreat at McCarter, where he began writing this play that had originated as a monologue by the central character, a "tweedy" woman he describes as an "Agatha-Christie-like character." Strolling through Princeton during a break from writing and convening with fellow playwrights, he looked at a street sign. You guessed it. Miss Witherspoon was named.
The germ for this play came to Durang as he was thinking about the concept of reincarnation, which he doesn’t espouse but finds "an interesting thought." Certainly if there is reincarnation, someone who commits suicide would find it a futile act. He or she has to come back. "My mind wandered off," he says. "What if one could stop the process?"
Miss Witherspoon, played by Durang veteran actress Kristine Nielsen, finds herself in a netherworld resisting reincarnating. She had committed suicide in an attempt to get away from the mess of the world, and she certainly did not want to go back there. As a teaser, production advertisements tell us that in her past, she had a ringside seat at the Salem witch trials and an "exasperating tendency to run into Rex Harrison."
In an interview that takes place in one of the side lobbies at McCarter, where Durang has just come from a production meeting, he describes this play as "a comedy to make you worried." Then he laughs and adds, "When things that concern you are reflected back in popular culture, I find that somewhat comforting." Audience reaction to previous readings of the play show that it’s not a "downer." He assures me, "It won’t send you home gloomy and unhappy."
For someone who has written such wacky work, it is surprising to meet this mild-mannered, polite gentleman. He has been described as "an angelic altar boy with poisons leeching through his writing fingers." Serious and reserved, he is the
first to admit that he’s not funny in person, and sometimes warns strangers up front, especially if he feels they are expecting Robin Williams. "Sometimes if I’m really relaxed, I might say something amusing in context, maybe at a dinner
Durang describes his early work as "absurdist," and feels that he still writes in several different voices. "I think that sometimes my plays are funny in different ways." Later works have bounced back and forth, sometimes "frankly light" like "Beyond Therapy" and his parody of "The Glass Managerie," "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," which was part of an evening titled "Durang Durang." At some point, he says his plays "began to have more recognizable emotions in them."
He feels that Miss Witherspoon is definitely a continuation of his work but describes its style as comic, but not "the manic frenetic side of my writing." In the introduction to the published collection of Durang’s plays, 1973 to 1995, Robert Brustein, founding director of Yale Rep, says: "There is a great deal of anger in his work…often proceeding from genuine pain and wounded innocence."
Miss Witherspoon has legitimate reasons for not wanting to go back to earth, though she’s relieved to have left the world before 9/11 and its aftermath. She has dropped out of the world because of her fear of things dropping on her, like Skylab falling from the sky, the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, or countries aiming missiles at each other. "This play is more philosophic than political," Durang says.
The playwright was born in 1949 in Montclair and grew up in Berkeley Heights, where he received an intense Catholic school education, which Durang fans will recognize in his first major playwriting success, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," which won an Obie (Off Broadway) Award in 1981, putting Durang on the theater world’s radar.
Growing up, Durang, the son of an architect, was buffeted about by the events in his home that were fueled by alcoholism. Later he would draw on these family experiences to write another Obie winner in 1985, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo." Durang says: "I think relationships are difficult." His parents separated when he was 13. After this play, he feels that his work moved on, leaving his family to rest. However, he says his mother continues to pop up in facets of other characters in his plays. "My mother was such a strong influence. She was very vibrant, interesting. She did have a hot temper and could sometimes speak very bluntly." She also gets credit for introducing him to theater. His family attended plays in New York City, mostly musicals, and at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Both of his parents are now deceased.
He wrote his first play at age eight. His Catholic grammar school cancelled class one afternoon and put on his play. Later while he was attending Delbarton School in Morristown, he and a friend wrote two musicals, "Banned in Boston" and "Businessman’s Holiday." You won’t find these in his collected works but they certainly suggest a young man with an active imagination and a penchant for writing.
Though he had decided that he wanted to be a playwright, he went to Harvard University aware that they did not offer a theater major. He felt that a well-rounded education would be better for his career goals than specializing right away. A good student, he received a scholarship to Harvard. For a time during college, he stopped writing and experienced a profound depression. "My depression was caused by the negative side of my family upbringing. I come from an alcoholic home, and there was lots of struggle and arguing and no problems ever seemed to get solved." Through the university counseling program, a very supportive psychologist helped him sort this out. By his senior year, he was back on track academically and also had returned to playwriting. In "a burst of feverish energy," he says he wrote "The Nature and the Purpose of the Universe." His darker comic style emerged. It got him into a playwriting seminar at Harvard, won a prize and performance at Smith College, and was instrumental in sealing his acceptance to the prestigious Yale School of Drama. He earned a bachelors in English from Harvard in 1971 and a masters in fine arts from Yale in 1974.
His first professional production was at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1974: "The Idiots Karamazov," which he co-authored with fellow student Albert Innaurato (later noted for his plays "Gemini" and "The Transformation of Benno Blimpie") and that starred another unknown, Meryl Streep, as a nutty old woman.
Interspersed with his more "serious" comedies, he has also written a number of light-hearted spoofs, the more successful of them being "Chris Durang and Dawn," a pseudo night club act in which he also performed. He has written several screenplays and has written sketches for Carol Burnett, including the Emmy winning ABC special "Carol and Robin and Whoopi and Carl." He often appeared in his own plays, and every now and then has acted in movies and works he didn’t write.
During the 1990s, he tried his hand at writing television sitcoms and in 2001 wrote and appeared in "Kristin," created for the original Glenda in "Wicked," Kristin Chenoweth.
At some point around the time of his writing "Laughing Wild," in the late 1980s, he decided that he yearned for a change from his city setting and began to look for a place in the country. He and his partner of 17 years now live in a stone farmhouse on several acres of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Durang says: "Now that I’m older, I find I write a little less frequently than I used to. I used to write a play every two years. Now it’s like who knows when the inspiration will come." In addition to "Miss Witherspoon," he has written the book and lyrics for a "lighthearted" musical parody of "noir" films, "Adrift in Macao," with music by Peter Melnick, which will premiere at the Philadelphia Theater Company in late October.
Thinking ahead, an overtly political drama is percolating in his imagination. "The presidency of Bush the Second has been so transforming in a bad way that it’s very hard not to make reference to him. I’m still debating what to do about that."
For most people, this agenda of openings and ideas would hardly seem "slowing down." But perhaps for him, the pace is less mad.
McCarter Live at the Library, Tuesday, August 23, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, Community Room, first floor, 65 Witherspoon Street. Playwright Christopher Durang and McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann discuss the world premiere of "Miss Witherspoon." 609-924-9529.
Miss Witherspoon, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Previews begin Friday, September 9. Opening night.