Remembering Christopher Durang, the Playwright Who Explained it All For Us, Only Funny

Posted on April 4, 2024

by Eric P

Comedy writers in the theatre used to be respected. Aristophanes. Molière. Neil Simon. Wendy Wasserstein. Almost half of Shakespeare’s extant plays are comedies, and most people think he was pretty good. But things change. At some point, apparently, people in America decided that comedies were easier to do than dramas, or that they had less to say, or that they were embarrassing things to enjoy. Over the course of the past 10 Tony Awards cycles, fifty plays have been nominated for the Best Play award, and by my assessment about six of those have been comedies. The only one of those six that won the Tony, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, was written by Christopher Durang, who died April 2 at the age of 75.

What’s surprising isn’t that Durang – a master playwright at the top of his game – won that Tony; it’s that he wasn’t nominated for more of them. Or for more of everything, really. All the awards. Everything. For almost fifty years, Durang was the American theater’s bard of perversity, outrage, absurdity, and occasional brattiness. He tackled Catholic doctrine, domestic dysfunction, and mental health. In a Durang play, expectations are routinely upended and authority is undermined: nuns are abusive, therapists are bad for you, parents are feckless, reincarnation’s a bummer, and just about everyone you meet is potentially a murderer. Shootings and dismemberings are commonplace; rape and abortion come up regularly. This all sounds like standard thematic territory for award-winning theatre, but Durang had the audacity to write it funny – like, really funny – which had the counterintuitive effect of making his work both more piercing and less critically esteemed.

He found tremendous success, though. Audiences loved him, as did collaborators like Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. His work could be savage, but it was never nihilistic; there was always humanity, and even optimism, underlying the beheadings and emotional damage. His Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a Chekhovian riff steeped in the maturity of life and studded with references to Entourage and Greek tragedy and Disney’s Snow White, is maybe his sweetest. There’s still sex and partial nudity and broken crockery and voodoo, but the play concludes with none of its three central siblings even trying to murder each other, which for Durang feels pretty sentimental.

Not just a venerated comic playwright but also a generous and beloved teacher of playwrights, Durang died after living with an extended diagnosis of logopenic progressive aphasia – a disorder that separates its sufferer from his words. It’s a particularly cruel disease to afflict such a deft and literate writer as Durang, but in its remorseless perversity, it also feels a little like something that might have befallen one of his characters.

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