Chris and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Durang takes a title role – Vanya – in his own play.
Almost by accident, the Bucks County Playhouse's current production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike evolved into something resembling site-specific theater, like Aida at the Great Pyramids.
Christopher Durang's comedy about a breathtakingly messy family gathering takes place in a Bucks County house similar to the playwright's country home not far from the New Hope playhouse, and plays out on a set not dissimilar to his living room - and starring the playwright himself.
"I've seen a few actors in this role," including David Hyde Pierce, who created it, Durang said the other day before the first rehearsal. "I feel that I can steal from them. That's why I said yes."
"The show recently won awards [including the 2013 Tony for best play], and there was a population in Bucks County that hadn't seen it. That made me want to do it right away," said the theater's executive producer, Robyn Goodman. "And when we were drawing up names for casting, my partner [Alexander Fraser] said, 'Do you think Chris would consider doing his play?' "
For all their reckless irreverence, Durang's plays - Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979), The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985), and Betty's Summer Vacation (1999) - aren't easy to cast. Genuine wit is a not-easily-found prerequisite, particularly the kind deployed in Chekhov-inspired Vanya and Sonia etc. - offhand and based more on quietly simmering personalities than on laugh lines. But this seemed like an easy call: Durang was on break from teaching at Juilliard. He lives nearby. And didn't he already know the play?
Well, sort of. "When you write a letter, do you remember it verbatim? No, you don't," he says. Same thing for a two-hour play. Durang didn't jump at the offer.
"He asked to think about it for 24 hours," said Goodman.
What she didn't know is that he had always had himself in mind for playing Vanya. What Durang didn't know is that memorizing his own lines would be tricky.
He hired a coach to meet with him a few times a week to go over his lines. Unfortunately, his inner auto-correct got in the way. "I keep getting it wrong, and finding the way I originally wrote it was actually better for the play," he says. "In one line, I say, 'I have the rest of my life to nap.' But that was wrong. And now I've forgotten what the real line was. There was another word for 'rest' . . . ."
"Yes! The 'remainder' of my life. And that's slightly better."
It also shows how meticulously Durang the playwright walks the line between spontaneous-sounding conversational speech and the precision of written speech. That's the side one sees offstage: Though he revels in the absurdity he finds in the more serious corners of everyday life, his quiet attention to detail suggests that of a small-town librarian.
Of course, Durang could exercise author's privilege and just rewrite. But he doesn't. "I let go of plays after a certain point," he says. "You're not the same person that you were."
The perceived religious rage of 1979's Sister Mary Ignatius is miles away from the desperate house-bound siblings Vanya (gay) and Sonia (adopted), who cared for their elderly parents until they died and who now seem waiting for their own lives to begin. Suddenly, they're visited by their polar-opposite sister Masha, an aging B-list movie star (played by Marilu Henner) and Spike, her sexy, much-younger dim bulb of a boyfriend, who can't keep his clothes on or stop flirting with Vanya.
"It's the only play I've ever written that has one set and takes place over a weekend . . . which is how plays were written during the 1950s in particular," he says. "When I was a young man, I liked to not write conventional things. So many plays of mine were absurdist back then and jumped all around."
The play's success defies F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-quoted remark that there are no second acts in American lives. Initially, Durang was the off-kilter darling of downtown New York theater until an apparent self-imposed exile from New York in the early 1990s, mainly because he fell out of favor with then-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich.
In fact, he was writing TV pilots and screenplays for Hollywood during that time, some in collaboration with author/playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Though he was paid, none was produced. He maintained his theatrical presence with a satiric lounge act titled "Chris Durang and Dawne" (which included his prim rendition of Michael Jackson's "Bad"). Then, months after Rich moved to the Times op-ed page, a 1994 evening of short plays titled Durang Durang surfaced. "I couldn't have enjoyed it more," wrote the Times' new chief theater critic, Vincent Canby.
That was followed by 1996's Sex and Longing, a three-hour nymphomaniacal odyssey starring his former Yale Drama classmate Sigourney Weaver that was such a flop (perhaps his biggest) that Durang hasn't, to this day, read the reviews. In 1999, Betty's Summer Vacation was a successful throwback to his earlier work.
Vanya and Sonia etc., however, not only breaks with the manner of his past, but casts a warmer light on previous plays.
Maybe Sister Mary Ignatius isn't all that angry. Durang was a practicing Catholic into early adulthood before disillusionment set in, and not just because the church isn't the most comfortable place for openly gay men. "When my mother was dying of cancer in the late 1970s, it was unclear as to what prayer meant," Durang says. "When I was little, the nuns and priests seemed to have an answer for everything . . . I thought of all the strange things we had been taught. Like everything sexual would send you to hell unless you were married."
He could go on, but instead concludes by saying, "I love the new pope."
Large parts of Durang are kept under wraps, the indication being moments in his plays that suggest a writer giving himself some hearty private laughs. And that may be the real explanation for why his Vanya characters - who are so much more Durang than Chekhov - still have those iconic Russian names.
"I just like it," he said.
The author has spoken - however quietly.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
July 17 to Aug. 10 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.
Tickets: $25-$64.50. Information: 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org