ABOVE: SIGOURNEY WEAVER AND CHRISTOPHER DURANG. PHOTO COURTESY OF T. CHARLES ERICKSON.
Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike is not a Chekhov parody. Rather Christopher Durang’s newest play at Lincoln Center takes the utterly demoralizing anguish of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, and transforms it into something oddly heartening and, of course, very amusing.
Starring three Durang regulars—his Yale graduate school classmates Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Neilsen, and old friend David Hyde Piece—and three young actors—Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant, and Genevieve Angelson—his new play centers around three a-little-older-than-middle-aged siblings dissatisfied with their lives and each other. Now 63, Durang wrote his first play over 55 years ago. It was, he tells us, two pages long and based on an episode of I Love Lucy. “I didn’t have a sense of how long, or short, a play should be,” he laughs.
Interview recently spoke with the playwright, professor, and occasional actor about Chekhovian despair, his favorite teacher, and moving away from early Durang darkness.
EMMA BROWN: You mentioned that Vanya was the first time in 15 years that you had written a play with certain actors in mind. Kristine Neilson was also in your last few plays; were you not thinking of her when you wrote them?
CHRISTOPHER DURANG: You know, I take it back. I guess in the last one, I did kind of think of Kristine. One reason I try not to think of specific actors is that you don’t always know who the director is going to be, and the director might have his or her own casting ideas, and it’s not good to force a director to go in a direction they don’t like. When I was younger I wrote with actors from Yale in mind, including Sigourney, and I ran into directors who would say, “Well, they’re not how I see the part.” And I would be in the bad position of having told them I wrote something with them in mind and then working with a director who doesn’t want to use them. Also, people like Sigourney, whose movie career keeps moving ahead, which I’m happy about, she’s often not available. I’ve had times where I’ve tried to get her and I couldn’t. So for those reasons, I’m a little careful.
In recent years I’ve tended to finish an Act One, and as a way to trigger myself to stop procrastinating and do an Act Two, I will request a theater give me a date for a reading, say, in two months. With a reading, of course, you’re also thinking of what actors you’re going to ask to the reading. In the last play, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, I did think of Kristine when I was writing Act Two. She was in the reading. I didn’t have a director when we did the reading—but then when I asked Nicholas Martin to do it, he’s a big fan of Kristine’s. So, easy. [laughs]
BROWN: It must be difficult being friends with actors, and then not always being able to have them in your plays.
DURANG: It was probably more of an issue early in my career, because I was a little naïve and hadn’t though about, “Oh, gee, that actor will be disappointed if I say I’ve written something and then the director doesn’t see it the same way.” I guess there was a period when it was more tricky. But mostly I enjoy being friends with a lot of actors.
BROWN: I was wondering how you came up with Billy Magnussen and Shalita Grant’s characters, Spike and Cassandra? Cassandra is obviously not from Chekhov.
DURANG: [laughs] I’ll do Cassandra first. I’ve always loved the concept of the character in Greek tragedy and I sort of had it in my head that I wanted to do something with Cassandra but I didn’t know what. I just liked the idea of this cleaning woman, who just came in and, not only kept seeing things in the future, but spoke in these sort of Greek tragedy monologues, using words one wouldn’t usually use. I don’t use an outline and I don’t always know where the story is going to go, so that’s where Cassandra came in—just seeing things that worried her. [In the script] she says, “Beware of Hootie Pie.” I didn’t know what that meant; when I wrote it—it was just a crazy non-sequitur—it sort of unfolded for me the same way it did for the audience. I started out with the crazy name of Hootie Pie, and although she’s offstage, she’s quite significant to the plot.
About Spike: it’s funny, Sigourney has been married to the same person for a long, long time—certainly over 20 years—so she’s extremely stable, in terms of her life. Normally I try to not think of Sigourney when I’m writing something because normally she’s not available, but I broke that this time. Since I was putting the play in the present day I wanted to make the actress—who is actually a bit like Madame Arkadina [in Chekhov’s The Seagull]—have a very young boy toy. I also thought that would discombobulate Vanya, a person who is sort of gay, but quiet about it. You’re not really quite sure what his experience has, or hasn’t been. I don’t feel like I know anybody like Spike [but] David Pierce, who’s playing Vanya, said something interesting to me about it—David, in 1982, was in the Broadway production of my play Beyond Therapy, and he played the waiter, Andrew. It was his first professional acting job; he got his equity card, which I’ve always been proud of. [David] said to me that he thought that Andrew, the waiter, was a sort of precursor for Spike. And it is true: [Andrew] only shows up in the very last scene. There’s been a running gag that [the lead characters] Prudence and Bruce, who met through a personal ad, keep coming to this restaurant where there’s never a waiter. It’s a very funny entrance, a built-in laugh. But as the thing goes on, the waiter’s character is kind of seductive—he says some inappropriate things and ends up coming out in his motorcycle setup to go off with Bob. I never made the connection with Spike, but I see what David means, there’s a certain naughty quality to the waiter that Spike has as well.
BROWN: Is Beyond Therapy still your most performed play, in terms of amateur theater?
DURANG: You know, it is. It really is. That thing has had legs.
BROWN: It seems especially relevant now, with online dating, etc.
DURANG: Oh, that’s true. I must say, a personal ad in a newspaper seems downright old-fashioned, by now. When I wrote the play, I didn’t know anyone who had ever answered a personal ad. But I did, certainly, see them. I remember seeing personals in The Village Voice and New York Magazine. And I just thought it was a fun way of getting people to meet when they hadn’t met before, or only exchanged letters, or something. But, yes, that’s true.
BROWN: Do you write normally write on commission, or do you approach a theater once you’ve completed a play?
DURANG: I don’t always work on commission. Usually, and particularly, when I was younger, I just would write a play, and then discuss with my agent who we might submit to. I guess I’ve had a couple of commissions over my life, one of them, actually, was Beyond Therapy was commissioned.
BROWN: When was the last time that you acted in a play?
DURANG: Gee, it’s been a long time. I had an odd acting job in TV, in 2000…. Oh wait! The Huntington Theater in Boston did a revival of my play, Laughing Wild, and it was directed by Nicholas Martin, who also directed Vanya and Sonia. I acted in it opposite Debra Monk. That was fun. That was 2005.
BROWN: Do you ever miss acting?
DURANG: I do. I keep thinking it would be fun to find something that I could do again, but my living in Pennsylvania makes it a little hard for me to really do things. It would have to be something I would really want to commit to, but I’m kind of interested in it. I feel like I’m now older, so I can play people’s grandfather now. Or older uncle. [laughs]
BROWN: You could go back and play some of the older parts in your own plays!
DURANG: Oh, that’s a thought, yeah.
BROWN: Do you go to the theater often?
DURANG: Much less than I would like. I did live in New York City from 1975 to 1995, and at that time sometimes I would just, spur of the moment, hop on the subway and go to a theater. Back then I often had to get standing room tickets—do they still do standing room tickets? I wonder. I hope they do—I can’t do that now, the commute is complicated, so I don’t see plays as much as I’d like. Also, because I teach at Julliard, I see a lot of student plays.
BROWN: What is something you say to your students, on the first day? Do you have words of wisdom that you like to impart every year?
DURANG: I’m definitely not as organized as that. Marsha [Norman] and I co-teach in the room at the same time, always. A student brings in a play they’ve been working on, either a full or partial draft, and we read it aloud, picking parts among ourselves, and we discuss it. Marsha and I oversee and start the discussion; as we were doing it I started to realize it was a little bit like running a talk show. Because we’re both still writing for the theater and we both have a lot of experience working with directors and theaters, we end up giving a lot of practical advice: What do you do if you disagree with a director? How do you choose a director? How do you deal with the rewrite suggestions, when you’re not feeling in agreement? That kind of thing.
BROWN: What do you do if you don’t agree with the director?
DURANG: It’s tricky. Significantly, no one can change the playwright’s words without his or her permission. And I think that, when you’re younger, you might run up against people trying to do that more. At that point, you have to be really tough about it.
BROWN: You’ve talked a lot about how you had a professor in college, the playwright William Alfred, whom you really admired. I know a lot of other Harvard graduates in theater and film—Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing—have also cited him as their favorite professor. Did you know what you were getting into when you signed up for his class?
DURANG: I was in his playwriting class my senior year at Harvard. I had had two lecture classes with him, so I didn’t know him on a one-to-one basis, but he was just a wonderful lecturer—his personality was just very engaging, and idiosyncratic too—and I knew of the fact that he had had a couple of plays that he wrote that were pretty respected.
When I went to Harvard I knew that you couldn’t major in theater, and I decided that that was okay with me, I should just be well rounded, but I didn’t end up being the best student. They never offered a playwriting class of any kind, but my final semester of my final year, all of a sudden, William Alfred was offering a seminar. I think there were 15 slots. I had done a very jokey musical my first semester of my final year, called The Greatest Musical Ever Sung, and it was the Gospels, told musical-comedy style. It was not, in my opinion, harsh, like Sister Mary Ignatius (1979) can seem sometimes, it was much more lighthearted. But, the Catholic chaplain, who I didn’t know, wrote a letter against the play—he was offended by it—and he got different people to sign the letter with him, including William Alfred. So there’s my favorite professor, signing a letter, saying he was offended by this play. But I also knew of his personality, and he was very sweet, and he went to mass every day, which is unusual, and I had in my head that, I bet he never actually saw the play, but if the Catholic chaplain went to him, he went along with him.
When I was submitting a play [to get into his class], The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, I didn’t know what he would think because it was very absurdist and rather dark. In it, there’s a crazy nun who kidnaps the Pope, and she doesn’t mean to kill the Pope, but she ends up killing the Pope. [laughs] And I thought, “Oh my God, he signed this letter against me, and he’s now going to think that I’m this crazy ex-Catholic!” So I really had no idea if he was going to accept me, and I was so excited when he did. It was the best playwriting class I ever took. He was really warm; he really liked my play, [laughs] which made me feel good, and he took each of us, separately, to lunch over the semester. I had my lunch with him and when we were just talking back and forth, I said to him, “Do you realize that I’m the person that wrote that musical that you signed a letter complaining about?” (I didn’t use the word “complaining.”) And he smiled, and said, “Yes. You’re very mischievous.” [laughs]
BROWN: Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is so brutal and upsetting. Your play begins with a similar premise—this overwhelming and inescapable anguish—but it doesn’t continue this way, it ends on a positive note. Was that intentional? Or did it just happen as you wrote the play.
DURANG: It just happened. And I know what you mean about Uncle Vanya. I find the last scene, when they’re just going over the books, and they’re so in despair and so unhappy with their lives, it’s extremely sad. And when I was in my 20s I was depressed a lot of the time, some of it kind of serious—it was interfering with my life and I wasn’t doing well in school, because I was just too depressed to do anything—and I think I read Uncle Vanya at that point.
BROWN: That’s a terrible time to read Uncle Vanya.
DURANG: Yeah, and Vanya, in the old-fashioned translation that I read says, “We’ll suffer through a long succession of tedious days, and tedious nights,” which I actually give to Sonia in Act One of my play. But that’s how I sort of felt about things, in my sophomore year of college. I think when I started writing the play, I thought that Vanya and Sonia were going to be equally bitter. As I was writing it, Vanya surprised me, he became somebody trying to be diplomatic and negotiate between [his] two [sisters], which is what I did with my parents when I was young, and my father was an alcoholic, and my mother and him would be fighting. In a certain sense, he seems a little more at peace than Sonia, and that just happened in the writing. It was not a conscious decision that I made. I very much liked the fact that Masha quotes, “Oh, Olga, let’s go to Moscow.” And Sonia gets to say, “I don’t want to go to Moscow,” which is so much not what the Chekhov characters are feeling in [Three Sisters]. I almost feel self-conscious about it, but, my early plays—in my 20s—often have very dark endings. Sister Mary Ignatius basically killed two people, one in self defense and one not, and then it just ends with her keeping a gun on another person while the little boy’s on her lap, reciting questions. That’s a dark ending. But starting with Miss Witherspoon (2005), and arguably with Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999), which is a rather dark play, I seem to have more hopeful things at the end. I seem not to want to send the audience home unhappy.