AMERICAN THEATRE | Chris Durang Was My Willy Wonka

by Admin
AMERICAN THEATRE | Chris Durang Was My Willy Wonka

Christopher Durang. (Photo by Susan Johann)

Christopher Durang, a path-breaking playwright and teacher of playwriting, died on April 2. He was 75.

I first heard of Christopher Durang in the fall of 1984. I was a freshman in high school, and his acclaimed play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You was playing in my hometown of Boston at the Charles Playhouse. The play, a lacerating comedy about a parochial school nun giving a lecture on Catholicism, came into town with a stack of rave reviews and awards from its recent New York run. But none of the accolades impressed the local chapter of the Catholic League, whose members picketed outside the theatre every night and decried the play for “inciting contempt for religious beliefs.”

Even Mayor Ray Flynn released a statement: “I have read a copy of the play and find that it is blatantly and painfully anti-Catholic…It is difficult to imagine this type of religious bigotry being presented on the public stage.”

On the local news, they’d show interviews with folks coming out of the theatre and gushing about how funny and true the play was, while just over their shoulders furious picketers railed against it.

I remember thinking: Wow, who knew that a playwright could cause so much trouble? How could one play be so hilarious to one group of people, but make another group want to burn the theatre down?

At 14 I was a burgeoning theatre-geek with a weird sense of humor. I was an impish jokester whose gags amused his friends and peeved most authority figures. Of course I felt an immediate kinship with Christopher Durang.

That kinship was cemented a few weeks after the Sister Mary dustup, when I was cast in the ninth-grade play, Durang’s A History of the American Film, an off-the-wall musical comedy that follows a bunch of nutball characters through several decades and at least a dozen Hollywood genres. The show had parody, social satire, a love story, mayhem, and, of course, songs! It was theatre bliss, and a far cry from the dusty Ibsen and O’Neill we were reading in English class. 

Being in that play was a defining moment for me. I felt like I was Charlie Bucket and Chris Durang was Wonka, kicking open the doors to his insane chocolate factory and inviting me inside. His work was so joyfully unhinged and scary and ridiculously funny. I didn’t know that plays could be like that, or that playwrights could do what Chris was doing.

Needless to say, that ninth grade show was a smashing success, and soon after closing night, a classmate said to me. “We should do a 10th grade play next year! Only this time you should write it, because you’re the funny one!” I had never written a play before. But we had all just had the time of our lives and I didn’t want to leave the chocolate factory. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll write a 10th grade play,” and that’s how I became a playwright. It was entirely because of Christopher Durang. 

I spent the rest of high school writing plays and reading scripts. And while I became a big fan of other playwrights, Chris Durang was always at the top of my list. Beyond Therapy, Baby With the Bathwater, The Actor’s Nightmare, The Marriage of Bette and Boo—all unapologetically silly, but still grounded in genuine pain and anger.

I went on to Sarah Lawrence College, continued to study theatre and to write plays. Not surprisingly, most every play I wrote was heavily influenced by the plays I admired, and the writer I admired most was Chris. His imprint on my earliest scripts is undeniable. I see the same influence on the plays of so many of my peers, especially the ones writing comedies, all of whom acknowledge the impact Chris had on them and their work. He was the patron saint of aspiring weirdo playwrights.

A few years after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, I applied to the Juilliard playwriting program, which was free and flexible enough that I could attend and still hold down a full-time job (which I had to do). Also, the program was run by two of my heroes: the brilliant Marsha Norman and…of course, Christopher Durang.

I can’t begin to articulate how surreal and terrifying it was to be sitting in a room with the man himself. Chris had no idea that he had changed my life when I was 14, or that he was singularly responsible for sending me down a path that led me to the very table he was sitting at. The man who I had always considered my playwriting teacher was now my actual playwriting teacher. I remember thinking, will he be like his plays? As mean as Sister Mary? As loopy as Mrs. Charlotte Wallace? As deranged as that famous tuna fish monologue?

Anyone lucky enough to have known Chris Durang already knows the answer. Instead of the zany kook you might expect, Chris was wonderfully sane, mild-mannered, and, yes, very funny, but usually in a sly and quiet way. He was also one of the kindest, most generous, and most thoughtful people you could meet.

So, in a lot of ways, he was very much like his plays. Because when you look past the more outrageous surface of Chris’s work, you’ll always find the soft and throbbing heart at the center of it. Sure, his plays can be hyperbolic and screwball and sometimes bitterly angry, but they’re also emotional, personal, and profoundly human. There is palpable sadness throughout The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Chris’s semi-autobiographical play about his parents’ troubled marriage. There is true despair in Miss Witherspoon, a play whose protagonist is a depressive woman who commits suicide every time she’s reincarnated. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike hums with regret and longing. And yet these plays were also undeniably hilarious.

Chris could dance across that funny/serious tightrope better than any playwright I know. It’s the thing that I, and so many of the writers who studied under him, aspire to every time we sit down to write a play. Chris was a beacon not just for playwrights, but also actors, directors, theatremakers and theatre lovers who encountered his plays and his singular sensibility. Though he’s gone, his light will continue to burn bright and show us the way.

David Lindsay-Abaire is the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Rabbit Hole. His other plays include Fuddy Meers, Good People, and Kimberly Akimbo, which he adapted into a musical with Jeanine Tesori. He serves as co-director of Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard.

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