Christopher Durang, the 34-year-old playwright who in the past 10 years has amassed a considerable reputation for being savage, zany, malicious, mad and thoroughly original, sits in an office at Arena Stage eating Chinese carry-out with a lackadaisicalness bordering on despondency.
Is this the same Christopher Durang who has written that one of his earliest memories was his mother bending over his crib and somehow making him understand that "it was wrong to hold an Eeyore doll between my legs?"
Half-heartedly, he spears a pea pod, buried in among the rice and beef. When his plastic fork breaks in two, he heaves a sigh and stares out the window for a while.
Could this be the same Christopher Durang who claims he once tried to be a juvenile delinquent by smoking Marlboros for a month, but stopped because "I was very short and looked silly?"
He locates another fork in the bag at his feet and spears another snow pea, but that fork breaks, too. Seemingly defeated by this conspiracy among the plastic fork makers of the world, he pushes the plate aside, sighs again and drifts off into silence.
Is this really the same Christopher Durang who gleefully dismembers Catholic dogma in the long-running off-Broadway hit, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," who sent up the entire output of Hollywood in "A History of American Film," who advanced the notion in "Das Lusitania Songspiel" that one of the prime influences on Bertolt Brecht was the Stephen Sondheim ditty "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"? The man who once informed that arbiter of men's fashions, Gentleman's Quarterly, that he bought his pants at The Gap? Or posed at the Russian Tea Room for a mock interview and photo spread for the now defunct revue, The Movies, with his good friend Sigourney Weaver--she in evening dress and tiara with caviar spilling off her head, he in tuxedo and black tie with sour cream smeared all over his face?
"It takes me a while to get going," he says in a flat tone. In the not-so-distant past, Durang resembled a devout choir boy, although in recent years he has taken on weight--both caloric weight and the figurative weight of the world--so the resemblance has become less acute. "I guess people expect me to be funny. They expect someone older, someone who looks decadent or falling to pieces. And certainly people think I'll be more angry in person than I am. I need more therapy before I can express that anger directly. Until then, it will have to come out in my writing."
The latter, intended as a joke, gets a laugh out of him. It is a giddy, high-pitched giggle, as disruptive of his generally reticent manner as a war whoop at prayer meeting. It disappears as rapidly as it has come, leaving Durang once again shrouded in pensiveness.
He admits he's nervous these days. He's got three openings in a row ahead of him, and he finds it "extremely nerve-wracking" "extremely hard," and "really strange" to go before the critics. On Tuesday, "Sister Mary Ignatius"--already a substantial hit in New York--opens in London. On Wednesday, "Beyond Therapy"--zestily appreciated off-Broadway, but a flop when it was remounted last season on Broadway--will be revived by Arena Stage. Then on Thursday, Durang's newest comedy, "Baby With the Bathwater" premieres in New York at the Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street.
It could be a triple for the playwright, who has been hailed as "a one-man lampoon." Then again, although it's hardly likely, it could make for a triple play--three outs and the side is retired. "I don't know what makes something successful and what doesn't," he admits. "I know I wrote 'Sister Mary Ignatius' for myself, especially when I knew it was going to be a long one-act. It's very peculiar to have a success in the theater with a long one-act. I almost didn't complete it." On the other hand, he's convinced that if The New York Times drama critic Frank Rich had liked "Beyond Therapy," it would have had a prosperous run. "I boil it down to that," he says. "I'm not complaining about Frank Rich. He liked the anger of 'Sister Mary,' but I think he wanted me to be angry all over again."
Durang calls "Beyond Therapy" his "singles bar play about people squeezing their lives into the post-five o'clock weekend." It was written, he says, after "a period of reading New York magazine for about a year and thinking about all my friends who were hitting 30 and beginning to get worried about not being married." It deals with the utterly traumatic relationship between a bisexual lawyer named Bruce, and a writer for People magazine named Prudence, who meet through a personals ad in the New York Review of Books. Each is undergoing therapy--Bruce's psychiatrist is a looney who is never without her Snoopy doll and whose habit of calling her secretary "my dirigible" is but an indication of her severe vocabulary problems. Prudence's shrink is a male chauvinist pig, who seduces her, oinks about his performance in bed and then threatens her with electroshock treatments when she tries to terminate therapy.
Although Durang virtually shreds the trendy psychobabble of the herpes generation, he sees "Beyond Therapy" as a "divertissement" and "a much friendlier play than 'Sister Mary,' " and he has decided affection for his helpless couple, as they navigate the perilous waters of a meaningful relationship. "The theme is a little akin to those Chekhov plays in which the wrong people are always in love with the wrong people," he says. "Actually, I don't have a skeptical view of therapy at all. I'm rather in favor of it. I've been to many therapists myself--for two years in college, then around the time my mother was dying, then oddly enough during the first production of 'Beyond Therapy' off-Broadway. I've seen a lot of harm done by people who brood over something insignificant for 20 years until it becomes this enormous issue, whereas if they'd said what was on their minds at the time, they wouldn't have this problem. Of course, I presume that one never gets so well adjusted in therapy that one ceases being interesting."
In "Beyond Therapy," Bruce's psychiatrist, the bubblehead Mrs. Wallace, says to him, "Never be afraid to risk, to risk! I've told you about 'Equus,' haven't I? That Doctor, Doctor Dysart, with whom I greatly identify, saw that it was better to risk madness and to blind horses with a metal spike, than to be safe and conventional and dull . . . Ecc, ecc, equus. Naaaaaay!"
"She's obviously a crackpot," says Durang. "She's silly. But her advice is not wrong. It's positive. It's good to know what you're feeling. Sometimes when I'm writing at the typewriter, I find myself cackling at things. I wrote both 'Sister Mary' and 'Beyond Therapy' during a time of healing, when I was getting over my mother's death and feeling relieved at not having to deal with the family any more. Mrs. Wallace really amused me. I had fun with her."
Durang's future biographers are likely to view his mother's death from cancer in 1979 as the seismic event in the half decade or so following his graduation from Yale Drama School and culminating with the off-Broadway triumph of "Sister Mary" two years ago.
"She was a very outgoing, vibrant person who, as far as I can tell, encouraged me as a child. I performed at a very early age. At 6, I was singing at my aunt's piano recitals. Eventually, they took me around to hospitals where I entertained. She was certainly a large force in my life." When he wrote his first play, his mother was duly appreciative. It was a two-page version of the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy made television history by having a baby. "I did it for the second grade class. I don't know why," Durang remembers. "Lucy was pregnant. She went out of the room and had a baby. Then she came back."
But there was also his mother's family, which he notes, somberly, "is Irish Catholic and all rather 'Long Day's Journey Into Night.' You know, lots of guilt and unhappiness and brooding and so forth." His parents separated when he was 13, and his upbringing in Berkeley Heights, N.J., seems to have been colored by the intricate bickering of relatives. "You could get swallowed up in it," Durang says. The second marking influence was the Catholic education he received at a Benedictine prep school. Upon graduation, he seriously considered entering the monastery, but opted for Harvard University, instead.
"I liked Harvard for about six months," he says. "Then my parents got divorced. I was expecting it, so it was no big deal. But there was something about the actual event. I got very depressed. I had been involved in protest marches against the Vietnam War ever since high school. My freshman year at Harvard, I came to Washington for a big march. But all the protests were having so little effect on President Johnson that I became rather like a child who's gotten tired of hearing 'no.' In some strange way, it all combined with my parents' divorce, and things turned very dark for me. Suddenly, I wasn't believing in God any more. My sophomore and junior year, I was close to paralysis. I stayed in my room a lot or else I went to the movies. I stopped going to classes. Every day, I just sort of couldn't get up. I had this job, very proletarian, to help pay for my board. I cleaned bathrooms--two hours a day, five days a week. It was very contemplative. I didn't mind. All you had to do was scrub."
He snapped out of the funk long enough during his senior year at Harvard to resume writing plays--a giddy musical version of the Gospels entitled "The Greatest Story Ever Sung" and the wacky "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe," which detailed the misfortunes of a long-suffering housewife, visited by God in the guise of a Fuller Brush man. The Yale Drama School looked favorably on his gifts for quick-cutting parody, if not on his academic record, and accepted him into its graduate playwriting program. His classmates were Albert Innaurato, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Ted Tally. In retrospect, it appears a golden age of burgeoning talent.
The career was on with such plays as "The Idiots Karamazov," "The Vietnamization of New Jersey," and "Titanic," in which the passengers, waiting existentially for the ship to sink, ended up drilling holes in the bottom of the boat. He even managed to salvage the years of round-the-clock moviegoing at Harvard by incorporating them into his epic parody of celluloid madness, "A History of the American Film." The play was premiered simultaneously in 1976 by three regional theaters (Arena, among them) and then tapped for Broadway production. In the thermal terminology of show business, Durang was hot. TV and Hollywood were calling.
His mother, however, had discovered a recurrence of the cancer that had first plagued her in 1972. "She stayed well enough to come to the Broadway opening of 'American Film,' " remembers Durang, "But about a week later--it was almost a psychological thing--she lost her ability to walk and was hospitalized with bone cancer. There was no time limit on her illness. She lasted another year, but the doctors told me she could have gone on two years, five years, even longer. It was confusing to know how to handle that and also see that she was properly taken care of."
"American Film" wound up in a vast Broadway theater, which distorted its sly, subtle comic values. The critics turned up their noses and it closed shortly after it opened. Friends say Durang was devastated. In addition, the family was pressuring him to give up his career, come home and do his duty by his mother. He was soon commuting to his mother's bedside "three and four times a week and recuperating the other three days. Her illness was certainly hard enough to go through," he says. "But part of my growing up was my desire never to deal with her family, and her illness made me deal with them every day for two years.
"During this long bout, I started thinking about the church's having an answer for everything. My mother was a practicing Catholic, but her faith was not sufficient solace for her. Basically, she didn't want to die. But for one of her sisters, that faith was enough. That gave me the idea of a play in which a nun gives a lecture, in which she explains everything, absolutely everything, to the audience. It had been ten years since I'd stopped believing and twenty years since I'd been taught how to distinguish between venial and mortal sin and spent a lot of time thinking about it--which is a rather peculiar thing for a child to think about. It was strange, bringing all that up again."
"Sister Mary," he says, was written with incredulity, comic rage, and "some nostalgic regret" for the comfort religion once afforded him. It also contains a long feeling speech by one of Sister Mary's former students, who relates her mother's slow death from cancer. The impassioned passage, clearly autobiographical, was a turning point--sure evidence that Durang is not just, as The New Yorker once called him, "one of the funniest playwrights alive," but also a writer of potential depth.
"Up to that point," he says, "I think some people actually considered me a moral idiot who found suffering funny."
"Sister Mary" has been Durang's biggest success to date--it recently began its second year in Los Angeles and is into its third year in New York. Wherever it plays, it invariably provokes its share of protest--none so acute as that emanating earlier this year from largely Roman Catholic St. Louis, where Archbishop John L. May branded the play "a vile diatribe against all things Catholic" and called for its boycott. The controversy escalated to the state legislature, which threatened the Missouri State Arts Council with a $64,000 budget cut for having funded the Theatre Project Company, which produced the work. Although the funds were eventually restored, the legislature felt compelled to issue a letter of warning to the Arts Council, advising caution against giving money in the future to groups that "discriminate" against religious denominations.
Durang views the episode with some impatience. "I was unhappy to see how far the protest got in St. Louis, just in terms of free speech. And I resent it when people call the play anti-Catholic. I find that a misleading, insulting phrase. I'm not against Catholics. I'm not saying their church should be closed down. This is not a documentary, it's a play. People can agree or disagree with me, but I was raised Catholic and I feel that I have the right to write from my own past."
Just what autobiographical resonances he strikes in his upcoming play, "Baby With the Bathwater," Durang won't say. He does note that it is a comedy about "all the terrible things a young couple does to a baby. Clearly, they're going to malform it." But he adds, "I'm not against parenting, any more than I'm against therapy. I have no other solutions."
Angry, gifted, silly, inspired Christopher Durang is silent for a moment.
"Even with the smartest, most well-meaning parents, it's terrifying what can go awry. I know in my case, the struggle not to go awry was . . . well, let's just say it was a very large struggle."