Entertainment Theater

Christopher Durang, the Surrealist of Snark

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Pickpocketing Chekhov for dramatic capital is nearly a ceremony of passage amongst playwrights, however solely Christopher Durang invested the loot in beefcake.

In his play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Vanya and Sonia are more-or-less acquainted transplants from the Russian hinterlands to Bucks County, Pa., dithering a lot in regards to the objective of life that they neglect to have one. Masha, although a film star, is a Chekhov sort, too: endlessly fascinating, particularly to herself.

However you’ll not discover Spike wherever within the canon; a jovial, amoral, ab-tastic himbo, he’s apparently unfamiliar with the perform of garments. They hold coming off.

Durang, who died on Tuesday evening at 75, was likewise a stripper, peeling the pants off severe theater, each to admire and mock what it was packing beneath. When “Vanya” gained the Tony Award for greatest play in 2013, it was the end result of a writing life spent remaking the respectable precedents and characters of the previous within the snarky picture of his personal occasions. Drama turned comedy, however then — shock! — swung again towards drama, then swung again once more, by no means fairly settling. In making us giggle after which demanding a retraction, Durang turned an absurdist Neil Simon for a post-great technology.

Typically sufficient, the laughing was of the can’t-catch-your-breath selection, additional dizzying the ambivalence of the culturati by punching each excessive and low. I didn’t see any of the performs and sketches he wrote whereas a scholar on the Yale College of Drama within the early Seventies, usually collaborating with buddies like Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep, Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein, however the titles inform you numerous: “Higher Lifeless Than Sorry,” “The Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor,” “When Dinah Shore Dominated the Earth,” “The Idiots Karamazov.”

Absolutely these weren’t for all markets. (Many had been carried out on the tiny Yale Cabaret.) However by the point of his first industrial hit — “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” in 1979 — Durang had widened his satire to achieve greater targets and thus greater audiences. In “Mary Ignatius,” a vicious nun lectures the viewers on Roman Catholic apply, liberally passing off private obsessions as holy doctrine. Her record of those that are going to hell contains Mick Jagger, Patty Hearst, Betty Comden and Adolph Inexperienced.

Jokes like which might be funnier if who the songwriters Comden and Inexperienced are, however Jagger and Hearst present insurance coverage in case you don’t. Both means, you’ll be able to’t miss his direct hit on authority figures and, via them, the seemingly random violence accomplished by establishments to people. In midcareer performs like “Child With the Bathwater” (1983) and “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (1985), marriage and the American household are sometimes the establishments in query, and the sexual or emotional abuse of kids the violence. Durang would drive you to giggle — a 1987 play was known as “Laughing Wild” — to not boring the ache however to hone it.

Later, as his topics turned extra existential, his satire was directed extra narrowly at particular person desperation. Cellphones and video video games ship his Vanya off the deep finish; in “Miss Witherspoon” (2005), a girl who’s fed up with the world (and afraid {that a} satellite tv for pc will fall on her head anyway) ends her life, solely to fulfill, in purgatory, a religious information who badgers her to reincarnate.

You’d suppose that suicide could be a bridge too far for comedy, but for Durang no bridge went fairly far sufficient. He was seeking to join the hitherto unconnectable, as if to display that every thing good and terrible is actual and current on the identical time. His performs thus turned fuller with time, their stark satirical premises giving option to one thing extra nuanced, if cluttered with all of the mismatched issues he needed to say. His “Vanya,” I wrote in a review, was like positive baggage packed in haste.

Nonetheless, he was reliably humorous; for a homosexual boy raised within the church within the American Fifties, humor was camouflage that by no means got here off. However, as a Harvard- and Yale-trained intellectual, he couldn’t assist however pitch his camp to the cognoscenti — and never solely in performs.

For many years he carried out as a part of an act he known as Christopher Durang and Dawne, satirizing cabaret singers and their typically jaw-dropping materials. (Dawne was two folks: Sherry Anderson and John Augustine, Durang’s companion after which husband.) Making use of glitter and riffs to a really inapt Stephen Sondheim quantity (“Welcome to Kanagawa” from “Pacific Overtures”) or making an upbeat medley from the movie musicals of Liv Ullman and Peter O’Toole, they demonstrated that incompatible issues belonged collectively.

That was no snark; it was a mission assertion, maybe greatest encapsulated in “Why Torture Is Mistaken, and the Individuals Who Love Them,” his 2009 comedy about violence and terror. Or at the least in its title, a grammatical misalliance. No surprise he fell so arduous for Chekhov, the good raised-eyebrow dramatist of discord and collapse. Nonetheless, Durang one-upped him, proving that even finish occasions might be hilarious with ok jokes and abs.