Durang Durang: A Dialogue with the 'Adrift in Macao' Auteur
For the better part of three decades now, Christopher Durang has been off-Broadway's reigning king of comedy. Following two late-'70s collaborations with his friend and Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver, Titanic and Das Lusitania Songspiel, Durang broke out with Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a satire of his Catholic school education. He received a 1980 Obie for Sister Mary Ignatius, which ran for over two years, and won the award again in 1985 for The Marriage of Bette and Boo and in 1999 for Betty's Summer Vacation. His 2005 play Miss Witherspoon was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The film noir parody Adrift in Macao, Durang's first new full-length play produced in New York since Witherspoon, opened last week at Primary Stages. It comes on the heels of an acclaimed production of The Vietnamization of New Jersey by the Alchemy Theatre Company, which gave the dark comedy its New York premiere in January, thirty years after Durang wrote it for Yale Rep. Another new Durang piece was seen off-Broadway in December: He contributed Not a Creature Was Stirring to the Flea Theater's bill of Christmas sendups, 'Twas the Night Before… His earlier short works were compiled in a 27-play anthology by Smith and Kraus Publishers, with six of those plays comprising the program for Manhattan Theatre Club's 1994 show Durang/Durang.
Last year, Durang became the first playwright to receive the Harvard Arts Medal, awarded annually to an alum. He received a bachelor's in English from Harvard and an M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale. Durang, now 58, has also acted from time to time, performing on the New York stage in MTC's Sondheim revue Putting It Together, the Encores! production of Call Me Madam starring Tyne Daly, and his own two-hander Laughing Wild at Playwrights Horizons. He costarred in Kristin Chenoweth's 2001 sitcom Kristin, did both an on-screen role and a radio caller's voice in episodes of Frasier, and had small parts in Housesitter, Mr. North and The Butcher's Wife, among other movies.
Durang discussed show business and the various facets of his career, along with its controversies, inspirations and disappointments, in an interview with BWW shortly before Macao's opening.
Is Adrift in Macao your first musical since A History of the American Film (produced on Broadway in 1978)?
Yes, it is. I had done one a couple of years before History of American Film that I coauthored with Albert Innaurato—The Idiots Karamazov, at Yale Rep [starring Meryl Streep]. But this is my first since that time.
Had you missed working on a musical?
I guess, in a way. I've done a couple of cabarets that had music in them. They were ways of keeping my liking of musical comedy part of my life.
I did grow up knowing and loving musicals. I'm from New Jersey, and I used to come in a lot to see them when I was a child and in high school. So in a certain sense I'd always thought I would work more in musicals, and I just haven't. There have been one or two when I almost worked on them—more-commercial projects that fell through. I was asked to come in and work on the book for Paper Moon, which starred the wonderful Christine Ebersole in the Madeline Kahn part [when a Broadway production was planned circa 1993]. I was about to begin when, unfortunately, the whole project fell apart and Roger Berlind, who was the producer, rather famously gave back all the money that investors had given him. There was also with the late director Mike Ockrent, he was all set to do Kiss Me, Kate in the [Public Theater's Shakespeare in the] park with Kevin Kline. This is before the [1999 Broadway] revival. I got hired to work on the book, not rewrite it substantially—I would have left Act 1 alone, but Act 2... That fell apart due to rights issues. The people who owned the rights to the book initially said yes and then changed their minds. So we never got to see Kevin Kline do Kiss Me, Kate. I thought the revival they did do was excellent, but that was mostly the original book.
So your fondness for musicals accounts for all the references to them in your plays?
They come from both a love and a knowledge. In Vietnamization, the girl just happens to be obsessed with The King and I [she go-go dances to "March of the Siamese Children"]. In Beyond Therapy, the character Bob has a mother who's always calling up and singing from musical comedy over the phone when she gets angry at people. Initially she's singing "Welcome to Kanagawa" from Pacific Overtures, which is very obscure, and later she segues into "Rose's Turn," which is described by one of the characters as "terrifying."
I was one of those fortunate suburban kids who got to see musicals. One of my early ones that I saw was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with the wonderful Robert Morse in the lead, and I think that musical influenced my plays because it was somewhat a cartoon—somewhere between sketch comedy and satire. Without even thinking about it, that was one of my influences in writing in my particular style.
Do you have a favorite old musical?
I have a number. One that isn't like my writing at all but I'm very fond of is the musical Carnival. It's very sweet, and I saw the original production with Jerry Orbach and Kaye Ballard and Anna Maria Alberghetti. In my high school and college days I became a great fan of Stephen Sondheim and saw the original Company and the original Follies and really loved them. And Rodgers and Hammerstein, for sure. King and I is actually one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and Carousel is quite a wonderful one as well.
Those are the ones that come off the top of my head, but I like lots of them. Even a commercial piece from the '50s like Damn Yankees is something that I like.
What do you think of what's happened to musicals since that "golden age"?
I don't know what I think, actually. The ones that we talk about tended to come from the mid-'40s up through the '50s, and since then we haven't been able to find a consistent style.
I do think the musical-as-spectacle is a trifle disappointing. I was a fan of Les Miz because I thought it told a good story and had stirring music. But some of the other big musicals I felt somewhat impatient with, like they ran because they had one or two major effects that tourists and non-English-speaking people came to see.
The musicals that I grew up loving were from a different time—the '50s and into the '60s, and then Sondheim found his own way to continue it. We can't actually create the old-fashioned musical [today]. It doesn't quite land. When a fairly popular movie is turned into a musical but there's not really a strong reason for making it a musical—that's been some of our mild semi-hits, semi-flops. I haven't seen Spring Awakening. I'm looking forward to it; mostly I hear it's very good. I liked Light in the Piazza very much. I thought it was a lovely and original telling of an unusual story.
Is it gratifying that The Vietnamization of New Jersey was hailed this year as timely, or is it exasperating that 30 years later the United States is tied up in the same issues?
Sort of both. Vietnam was an unpopular/controversial war, and so is the Iraq War. So the characters in Vietnamization are dealing with their mixed feelings about the Vietnam War, and some of the references very much seem similar to American feelings during the Iraq War. As someone who was a college student during the Vietnam War, I certainly didn't expect to ever find ourselves again in such a situation, where the country was so split about going in, and also it just drags on and on and doesn't seem to have any purpose. I was also so startled during the Kerry campaign when so many people on the right came out so angry about Vietnam and feeling we should have won. I'm not even sure what winning in Vietnam would have been…
The play was not enjoyed, at least in the New York Times, back in its original production, so it was kind of fun to have it show up 30 years later. It was a critic who was mostly supportive of my work, but he found that the humor was too flip on dark topics. He reviewed it the exact same day he reviewed The Shadow Box—a very serious play about death that won the Pulitzer Prize. I often wonder if he had seen the play on a different day whether it would have had any effect.
Are you going to write a play that directly takes on Bush and Iraq?
I am working on a play that, assuming I finish it—I'm only a third into it—will be more explicitly political, and I think it will deal with stuff that we're all thinking about. I'm going to limit how much Bush and Cheney and all are used by name; I want to make it a little more fictionalized than that, but write about the culture wars—all those red-hot topics that seem to make everyone so angry.
What do you think of the political theater that's come out during the Bush years?
I have to tell you, I don't think I've seen most things. I don't live in New York City anymore, so it's hard for me to keep up with all the theater. I didn't manage to see Stuff Happens, but I heard interesting things about it. And there have been some cabarets that sound like they may be fun, but I haven't seen them. A.R. Gurney's play Mrs. Farnsworth took on Bush, perhaps not about Iraq, and I thought that was clever and well-done. The main thing is it's tricky to write about the specifics. The specifics can go stale very quickly. I wrote a play in the early '90s at American Repertory Theatre called Media Amok, and it was very much triggered by the Bush Sr.-versus-Dukakis presidential debates, and some of the material was interesting and fun, but its shelf life was very short.
Political humor is tricky, and one thing that's tricky about is tying it to specifics, which is what it should be tied to. That's why so many people, including myself, love watching The Daily Show, because those sketches and comments are made the day of or the day after certain events. So I feel that in a way they're fulfilling political comedy and theater.
Much of the most popular, and best-written, comedy nowadays—like The Daily Show and The Simpsons—satirizes politics and other influential elements of society. Do you ever want to pat yourself on the back, like "Hey, I was doing that years ago!"?
Well, sure, I guess. I teach at Juilliard and some of my students are funny: David Lindsay-Abaire was a student, and Daniel Goldfarb [Modern Orthodox], and a current student, Adam Szymkowicz [last summer's Food for Fish at the Kraine].
I think Jon Stewart and his writers are terrific. They're really clever, and I also think they're very smart. Journalistically it is so valuable when they will show the latest pronouncements from the Bush administration and then they play clips what they said four months ago when they contradicted themselves. It isn't only about contradicting; it's often about lying, basically. I find it frustrating that the news in its seeming politeness and supposed evenhandedness never does that.
What do you see in playwriting students' work that you like or dislike?
I'm not a fan, with some exceptions, of theater that is all language and very little character or plot. I co-teach with Marsha Norman, and the students we accept, whether they're writing more seriously or poetically or comically, we are drawn to people with characters. I'm not very good at plot—Marsha's better—but I can still acknowledge the power of plot. It's very self-conscious, but the search for Mr. McGuffin in Adrift in Macao is standing in for a plot—it kind of allows certain things to happen.
I just think that character and plot can still grip an audience. When John Patrick Shanley's play Doubt was such a deserved hit, that was a good example of the power of those two things.
Have you ever considered writing a drama?
I had a playwriting class my last year in college, when I had just come into writing in my absurdist style. I wrote two crazy, funny plays and then I wrote one serious one and asked the teacher what he thought of it. He said, "It's okay, but I think the crazy, funny ones are better." So I'd be surprised if I went to a straightforward serious play.
My last play, Miss Witherspoon, although it had comedy in it, was more thoughtful in tone than some of my other plays. But primarily I do like making people laugh and the energy of comedy, so the likelihood of my writing a totally serious play without humor is small—but not out of the question.
Do you have a favorite of the plays you've written?
I guess I have two. The first would be The Marriage of Bette and Boo, just because it was very, very personal and based on my parents' marriage. I also like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You both for its content and its angry energy, and also for what it did for my career—it did sort of jump-start me, I'd have to say.
How do you feel you've changed as a playwright as you've gotten older?
Hoping it doesn't sound too cliché, I think on some level I've mellowed as a person. Early on there was a kind of frenetic energy that came out of me—I would make dark jokes that I might not make anymore. I don't really think of it as self-censorship as much as thinking if a particular joke just jumps out as likely to bother too many people, maybe it's not worth it to keep it in.
The other big change is, not that I'm a happy-go-lucky optimist, but when I started out I was really pessimistic about human relationships and the world. I'm still somewhat pessimistic about the world, but I'm not as dark about people's ability to change. I don't think it's easy, but I now think it does happen. When I was younger, I almost never did [think so]. I grew up in an extended alcoholic family, and I did spend time in my 30s going to both Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics. That made me aware: People who go through that upbringing sometimes make early decisions about what life is like. At age 7 or 8, you go: Oh, I see, nothing ever works out. That's the mantra that can come back into my brain. And it can be very hard to move forward if you have that thought. But by becoming conscious of having the thought, you can choose to erase it from your head—or amend it to "Often things don't work out, but sometimes they do."
Are you less angry than you used to be?
It's very odd: I didn't feel that angry when I was younger. I understand, though, looking at my plays that many of them do seem angry. I think I put that anger into my plays without actually feeling it, which is very strange. I actually think in my later years I am more capable of feeling personal anger, and also I get very angry at the political situation, so I think I'm more aware of my feelings than when I was younger. When it comes out in my plays, it's more conscious now; up through my late 30s, it was unconscious.
Are your battles with the Catholic Church over?
They're mostly in the past. That was very much around the time of Sister Mary Ignatius, which was the early '80s—different bishops did denounce my work. Sister Mary made fun of some of the, to me, very obviously odd things that have been taught as fact. One example is easy: the idea that unbaptized babies were sent to limbo because God couldn't allow them into heaven because they hadn't been baptized. That just seems crazy. And I think that if I can make an audience laugh at that, good for me. There are other issues in there too—a lot about sexuality and abortion and being gay—and I think that much of the Catholic Church remains pigheaded on that, and I feel that it's my right to say that if I want. Also, I went through 12 years of Catholic school so I am writing about my own background and what I was taught—another reason that I feel they should just…turn the other cheek.
I do feel like it can recur. The protests from different conservative groups who found my play angered them was an early symptom, an example, of the so-called culture wars. They were basically saying that I shouldn't say what I said about the Catholic Church, that they are offended and would I please shut up. Back then, they tied it mostly to tax funding for the theater. They didn't want any theater with tax funding to put on my play or a play like it. In truth, as we can see, they actually want to control everything. Just looking at the debate about stem cell research: A majority of the country is fine with using stem cells for research, but the minority who's opposed to it is trying to impose their will on us.
You've been successful off-Broadway but not so much on Broadway. (Durang's last Broadway play, 1996's Sex and Longing, ran only a month; Beyond Therapy didn't even last that long. History of the American Film also closed after a couple of weeks.) Has this soured you on Broadway?
When I came to New York in the mid '70s, it was clear that more plays were happening off-Broadway than on Broadway. And as the years went by—as you know, some years there aren't even enough plays to nominate for the four slots in the Tony nominations. Also, as the ticket prices have gone up—I complained earlier about the musicals where there are big flashy effects, but that's what some audience will go: Well, that's what's getting my money's worth. If it's just somebody in a room talking, it may not feel worth spending 100-plus dollars on. There's a part of me, if I could choose places to work, I think I would have loved to work in the movies in the '30s and in theater in the late '40s and '50s. Who knows if my particular style would have fit in anywhere, although I probably could have written screwball comedy, but I just think Broadway has changed in terms of plays… That's just how it is. Me being off-Broadway is fine.
Have you written for TV and the movies?
Starting in the early '80s, shortly after Sister Mary Ignatius' success, I did start to get offers to write screenplays and then, later on sometimes, television. I've written a number of screenplays, and the nice thing about working out there is they pay you whether they make them or not. I've been frustrated over the years that mostly the things I've written haven't gotten made, which is a common thing that happens in Hollywood. I did write from the same place where my plays came from—trying to make them original and individualistic—so when they didn't get made, it was more disappointing than if I felt myself more a writer-for-hire. In any case, I'm grateful to have been able to use it to supplement my income.
[For more about Durang's Hollywood writing, see the film/TV section of his website.]
You're not happy with the one big-screen adaptation of your work, are you?
Robert Altman made a dreadful movie of Beyond Therapy. He rewrote the play, which wasn't supposed to be the agreement. I was foolish, though, I gave him the rights—he was very charming when you meet him, plus he had made some wonderful movies.
[Altman's script] in a way dispensed with the psychological logic underlying the characters, so they just sort of ran around acting crazy without it being convincing. I'll give you one example: Bruce and Prudence meet through a personals ad, and they meet in a restaurant. Bruce is written to be, not only is he bisexual, he's trying to be open to his emotions. So he tells Prudence that he's deeply emotional and likes to cry. Prudence doesn't like that, she thinks it's awful. In the play, he then starts to cry—which makes her very unhappy. In the movie, Jeff Goldblum [as Bruce] takes out an eye-dropper and puts in false tears. Well, what does that mean? It's baffling to me, as well as it throws out the window that he's this emotional guy.
What positive experiences have you had writing for Hollywood?
It's not very well-known, but I did a half-hour piece for PBS that I quite like. It was a [anthology] series called Trying Times, in the late '80s. I did an episode with Swoosie Kurtz and Jeff Daniels and Julie Hagerty called "The Visit." I was happy with how they did it. It was directed by Alan Arkin—that was fun.
I had a fun time working uncredited—in the old days it would have been called "additional dialogue," but the Writers Guild did away with that credit—on the movie Secret of My Success, with Michael J. Fox. I also had an acting part in it, and the director, Herbert Ross, asked me to rewrite a few of the scenes. It was closer to cabaret in that he would say, We're filming this scene in two days; can you pump up the dialogue so it's funnier? I didn't have to change the plot or characters, I just had to come up with funnier things for them to say.
Why haven't we seen you acting much lately?
The opportunity hasn't really presented itself, nor have I pursued it exactly. Maybe I'll call up my acting agent tomorrow. I would enjoy doing more.
What type of reaction do you like people to have to your work?
Because of my website, I get to hear from strangers, and I must say that's mostly been very nice. I liked getting one e-mail that came from Miss Witherspoon, which although it [the play] doesn't mention George W. Bush is very much in the period of being afraid of terrorism and afraid of the decisions of the government. The person who wrote me said that she had woken up feeling very, very depressed about the world and then she went to see my play and saw all those feelings and worries that she had reflected back at her but nonetheless the play cheered her up, because it does end in a kind of hopeful way.
I'm happy when people are open to being moved in the midst of the comedy—say with The Marriage of Bette and Boo or Miss Witherspoon. I like writing dark comedy, but I also like to include actual emotions in there. I feel that that's accepted more from me than it used to be when I was starting out. Plus, I think I put them in better than I used to. Sometimes I just write lighthearted comedy, which I think Adrift in Macao is.
Production photos, from top: Orville Mendoza and Michele Ragusa in Adrift in Macao; Frank Deal and Corey Sullivan in The Vietnamization of New Jersey; Jeremy Shamos, Kristine Nielsen and Colleen Werthmann in Miss Witherspoon. [Photo credits: James Leynse; Trevor Oswalt; Joan Marcus]