Interview with Christopher Durang (from the City Paper Archive)

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The Philadelphia Theatre Company is presenting Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (previews begin March 21st, and the show runs through April 20th — see their website for more details).

I’m delighted to say that I’ll be a panelist at the April 1st performance, where we’ll discuss the playwright’s links to absurdism.  (Durang himself will speak after the April 6th matinee.)

In the spirit of things, I’m reposting a 2005 interview with Durang that I did for the City Paper.  The occasion was the world premiere of Adrift in Macao, which took place at PTC.  You’ll find that some of the questions are specific to that show, but more of it is really about his work in general, and his love for theatre, movies, etc.  It was one of the most fun interviews I ever had.

“I’m having a busy year!,” Christopher Durang tells me – and the playwright who is famous for truth-telling is right on-the-money, as usual.  Last week, his world premiere play, MISS WITHERSPOON, ended a run at the McCarter Theatre.  In mid-November, the show will arrive at New York’s Playwrights Horizons.  Meanwhile, Durang is in Philadelphia, readying his second premiere of the season, ADRIFT IN MACAO, for PTC.

MACAO is a musical (the composer is Durang’s friend, Peter Melnick), and it’s a return of sorts to a beloved genre. In the 1970s, Durang’s A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM became a cult favorite.  The piece, which involved a group of film archetypes (the Bette Davis type, the Henry Fonda type) wandering through much of the 20th Century, was resolutely uncategorizable – a song-filled romp one moment, a Pirandellian dark comedy the next.  For many of us, it was an introduction to a truly original voice.

DF: What we should expect from MACAO?  

CD: “It makes a fair amount of reference – especially in ambience – to the film noir world of the 1940s.  But it’s lighthearted.  I’mIn general, in older movies I enjoy the female characters, the way anything can happen to them.  Take MIDNIGHT, with Claudette Colbert.  She ends up in Paris with no luggage, just a gold lame evening gown.  (It’s complicated.)  It leads her into to all kinds of interesting things.  In so many of the noir films, there are women nightclub singers, performing in smoky clubs.  Were there really so many of these clubs?  Where were they?  MACAO is a more lighthearted film noir parody – but more drawn to the smoky nightclub aspect, and the mysterious man, and less drawn to the crime stuff (there is crime stuff, but it’s rather self-consciously an excuse for a plot.  Mitch is trying to find Mr. McGuffin (it’s explained in a rather Pirandellian way).  I like the dark ones – DOUBLE INDEMNITY – but in those the women are actually psychotic and dangerous .  In something like THE BIG SLEEP, she’s acerbic – but also kinda great.  It’s the kinda great ones I’m more drawn to.

How about the setting of MACAO.  Why did you choose there?

There’s an old movie actually called MACAO, with Robert Mitchum.  Jane Russell plays a nightclub singer.  I like the idea of a woman in an exotic place, with all the possibilities. Peter Melnick, the show’s composer and my friend, wrote a song a called “In a Foreign City in a Slinky Dress.”

What are your hopes for the future of ADRIFT IN MACAO, after the PTC production?

It started as a very small musical – just five characters – but we added what we call “the trenchcoat chorus,” and now it’s seven people… still small, but not quite so small.  It’s always tricky, but of course I’d love it if it moved on.  It’s really a lighthearted piece – not so much from my bitingly satirical mode, though there’s a little of that.  But mostly, it’s lighthearted, good fun.  That’s how I see it, anyway – I hope audiences will, too.

I’m a longtime admirer of your work, and even a sometime director.  I’ve done three of your plays at Penn: LAUGHING WILD, a staged reading of HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM, and the 10-minute MEDEA, which served as a prologue for Charles Busch’s THEODORA, SHE-BITCH OF BYZANTIUM.

CD: I don’t know that one of Charles’s, but it’s a funny title, per usual..

I’d like to know more about your early influences –  old movies, and musicals.  Shall we start with movies?  Was that an interest since childhood?

I’m a baby boomer – from New Jersey, though my father’s family is from Philadelphia.  We got a TV when I was five or six – and they often showed movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  I was always drawn to them.  I grew up with a show called THE MILLION-DOLLAR MOVIE, which showed the same movie multiple times, and I’d often watch movies more than once when I really liked them.  I remember the first Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movie I saw, which was FOLLOW THE FLEET.  He plays a navy man and it’s not one of their more typical ones – it’s more common-man-ish – but it’s very charming.  But in truth, I lost interest in movies in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s – I know there are very good ones, and I could identify some newer ones I like, but I was on Netflix last evening, and looked at their top 100 – I don’t think I knew more than 10 of them!  I also started working for studios in the ‘80s, and I think they are run very differently now – by people who went to business schools.  It’s not the old studio moguls were brilliant, but as Pauline Kael wrote about them, they came from an immigrant background that gave them a respect for literature.

There’s something mythical about older movies, isn’t there?

Yes.  Well, in the early days they really were inventing movies – movies with sound in the 1930s, for example.

ADRIFT IN MACAO sends up film noir.  Was that a favorite genre of yours?

It was and it wasn’t.  I liked musicals and screwball comedies first.  I wasn’t as flipped about film noir as the French film critics were – one of the characters in MACAO makes reference to dating a French film critic, so she can learn more – but there were some I loved.  Now that there are DVDs, I’ll buy something I want to see many times.  One I own and like a great deal is THE BIG SLEEP.  When I was in Catholic High School in Morristown, I became a very good student – worked hard and got very good grades.  I gave myself the treat of a rare night off, and decided to watch THE BIG SLEEP on TV.  I only knew that it had Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and that the story was famous for being incomprehensible.  But I found it was like a smoky nightmare – but with the delightful humor of their by-play in it!  I’ve since read that even the writers and Howard Hawks, the director, couldn’t make sense of the plot, but for me it was an evocative, entertaining movie.  I did something similar with Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS, and that has a really good plot, one of his best. Another one I’m drawn to – not noir but from the ‘40s (?) – is Billy Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR with Marlene Dietrich.  (It hasn’t been on TV in 15 years or so – even Astaire and Rodgers didn’t make it to DVD till just recently.  I hope they don’t forget FOREIGN AFFAIR – it’s not a masterpiece, but he’s so good, and it’s one of Marlene Dietrich’s best.  When I was a child it played a lot on TV, and there’s another recent movie called A FOREIGN AFFAIR that I have zero interest in, so I keep being disappointed in Amazon.  (We talk for a minute about TEA AND SYMPATHY, also not on DVD, but a real gay film landmark, with its tacked-on Hollywood ending.)  It’s hysterical!  The letter – “what we did was wrong” – it’s just so funny!

On the general theme of this conversation, I recently saw VERTIGO and thought how striking Kim Novak is.

I have a lot of affection for Kim Novak.  She’s not a strong actress, but there’s something fuzzy and sad about her… I even like her in PAL JOEY. 

This gives us a good segue to musicals.  Say more about your early interest in musical theater.

My family and especially my mother were interested in the arts.  She had seen and loved the original OKLAHOMA!.  We lived near the Paper Mill Playhouse, and I’m pretty sure the first thing I saw was there.  I saw a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein there, usually starring Betsy Palmer.  We lived close enough to New York to go a few times a year – the first show I saw was FIORELLO!, and the second or third was HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS.  I think actually that HOW TO SUCCEED influenced my playwrighting.  The book is purposefully cartoonish (and very funny), and I also caught on to the idea of short scenes without too much talking.    My early plays especially were influenced by musicals, I think.

My friend Kevin Farrell also loved musicals (my Aunt Phyllis was his piano teacher), and at 13 we wrote a musical together, called BANNED IN BOSTON.  (I don’t know where I picked that up, but it’s funny, since SISTER MARY IGNATIOUS later had troubles in Boston.  It’s foreshadowing, almost.)  Looking back, I think of it as very innocent – it ended with four marriages, very Shakespearean.  My mother was like my press agent – she talked to my teachers, and the Morristown school where I went put on the show!  It had juniors and seniors in it – very exciting, and I got a taste for the fun of production.  There were certain lines that got laughs which I hadn’t expected – it was probably just people saying things so bluntly.  (I think I’ve since picked up a better sense of how things worked.)  In my sophomore year, we wrote BUSINESS MAN’S HOLIDAY, which was also done at school – and both these plays were done in the summer (partially due to my mother’s get-up-and-go) at the Summit Playhouse.  They leant us the theatre.  A couple of years ago, they asked me back for a benefit.  In the first half, they did a production of my play, ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE.  In the second half, I sang with the girl who played the lead in BANNED IN BOSTON – she’s gone on to singing in clubs.  We had appeared together as Hero and Philia in Sondheim’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.  So we reprised “Lovely,” with some new lyrics.  (He demonstrates: “Fifty.”  Now we’re fifty…”)

Will you ever reprise your sensational cabaret act, CHRIS DURANG AND DAWNE?

Probably at some point, but I don’t live in New York anymore, and it’s hard to get everything together.  I do get a kick out of it!

What about your own leading ladies?  You’ve had a long history of working with illustrious actresses.  Personally, I have vivid memories of productions of MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO and LAUGHING WILD in Los Angeles – Christine Ebersole was magnificent in both.

Isn’t she great?  I think she’s so wonderful!

And of course, you are an actor yourself.  So… how would you define “the Durang style,” as it applies to actors?

Hmmm.  Well, I have lots of thoughts.  I’ve come to the thought that there are two ways in, and it depends on the nature of the person’s talent.  The first is the way my friend Sigourney Weaver has tended to do it, which is particularly effective in some of my absurdist works.  If she had something particularly outlandish to say, she just did it with real sincerity, bringing real acting to this absurdist world.  Later on, when she was in the off-Broadway version of BEYOND THERAPY, which is a more conventional comedy, not really absurdist (though I was thrilled when someone called it a “modern screwball comedy,” because I like that idea), you can’t just be sincere – you also have to have the ability, which Sigourney has, to communicate to the audience that they have permission to laugh.  I’ve seen some actors do my work sincerely, and it just isn’t funny.  You do have to have something extra.

The other kind of performer – Christine Ebersole, or someone I never had the pleasure of working with, Madeline Kahn – they are at core realistic, and yet they have an added sense of exaggeration that comes naturally to them.  It’s not as if they are saying, “I’ll be exaggerated now” – it’s just built into them.  I’ve seen in some productions somebody who should do it the way Sigourney does it, but instead decides to do it the exaggerated way.  (I act my own stuff more in the way Sigourney does, though I sometimes will stress a particular word or something.)  Where I’ve occasionally seen it go off is when it’s exaggerated in a really big way.  I’m a big fan of Mel Brooks’ movies, but that’s a really exaggerated style that doesn’t work in my stuff.  My plays need a bit more reality than that.  You know, I think my work is hard to do.

You mention Madeline Kahn – I always wished she had been in one or more of your plays, especially as Charlotte the psychoanalyst in BEYOND THERAPY.

She was so gifted.  I was in a benefit in New York a few years before she died, and she was very friendly.  She said, “I wish I could have done some of your plays.  I think I know how to do them.”  And I said, “I think you do, too.”  I got to know her a little bit because she gave that wonderful performance in Wendy Wasserstein’s SISTERS ROSENZWEIG.  I saw the first read-through, and in fact there was almost a problem (though they ultimately solved it) – Madeline was so great that it was hard to pay attention to the more realistic aspects of it.  Even though she was absolutely hilarious, and had that exaggeration that came naturally to her, nonetheless on some level she was a real person, who – as part of her needs – was both expansive and a little screwy in her thinking.  I remember her in PAPER MOON – and I also saw Christine Ebersole in that role in the musical.  They were wonderful, both of them.

Working with college actors I generally find they either get your humor or they don’t.  There’s not much in-between.

Yes.  It’s really hard to explain how a joke works.  My mother, who influenced me a lot with literary stuff, loved James Thurber.  I grew up liking him a lot – some of his cartoons are funny just in the phrasing.

A line of yours I still remember – for the line as well as the performance – was Christine Ebersole saying to her son, in THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO, “You’re the only one of my children that lived.  You should see me more often.”  There was a stunned pause from the audience for a few seconds, followed by an uproar.

Wow – interesting that you remember that one.  I’m sure that one of the things that made it work is that even though she has a comic ability that is second nature to her (so she can say something and make sure it “lands” just right)… she meant it!  That’s what the delay was about, so you say “Oh, my god”… and then you laugh.

Your interest in popular culture leads you to include all kinds of topical references in your plays.  And you’ve been unusually flexible in changing references within your plays as time goes by, particularly in A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM.

Yes.  Well, Juilliard did two productions of it.  One, before I taught there, but someone very nicely invited me, and it was a very good production.  Then they did it while I was teaching – in 1996 or 97 – and because I was there, I became aware of the issue.  People pointed out that the film references end in the 1970s, and asked if there was a way to change it, and I thought that really there wasn’t, at least not in a full way.  But because the last scene (set in a movie house during an earthquake) goes through movies so quickly, I came up with a few quick references.  I did that and had it published in one collection.  (I realize now it’s not published in the Samuel French edition – I should contact them!)

Your plays are famous for their references to various aspects of popular culture.  Can it be a problem to have such specific references?

Somewhat.  In LAUGHING WILD, there were so many references I really did feel that it was tying it down.  Not only that, but I wrote it in 1987, and George Bush-the-first was elected in ’88.  I had made a lot of references to Ronald Reagan, but now the play actually feels like a Bush years play to me now.  I took out a lot of those references, and left in only a few.  In the last few years, some directors have asked me to update LAUGHING WILD or BEYOND THERAPY, which also has a lot of specifics, like Plato’s Retreat.  I’d be happy to, but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of Plato’s Retreat (or at least, I don’t know of one).  For a San Diego production, I agreed to think about it – but looking through the play, I realized there are just too many elements linking it to another time.  So I use my love of movies to pitch to theatres to set it back in time.  ‘30s and ‘40s movies certainly use period references.  That’s what they did in San Diego, and what I did for a recent Boston production of LAUGHING WILD that I was in.  I will say, though, that when I wrote BETTY’S SUMMER VACATION and my most recent play, MISS WITHERSPOON, I’ve gotten more careful about casually putting in a reference that’s going to tie the play specifically to one time.  I can see it causes issues later on.

One especially funny reference that I remember in BEYOND THERAPY is the leading man proposing that prior to sexual intercourse, he could take his date to see THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (a lugubrious Italian movie briefly popular around 1980).  The title – and the kind of people who were talking about that movie – made me laugh, even though I never saw the movie.

You know, I also didn’t see it, but thought the title was funny.  When BEYOND THERAPY played off-Broadway, Pauline Kael came to see it.  I was delighted, because I had always admired her as a critic – and she was a truly funny writer.  At intermission, she said to me “If you saw TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS, you’d know how funny that is.”)

So much of your work is popular with young actors, and they use it for auditions.  Do you ever feel that there are works of yours people do too often?  And others you’d like to see done more?

About auditions, sometimes casting directors have told me they see particular pieces of mine a lot.  But it’s cyclical, and it changes so fast.  I do think actors need to look around and have a sense of what people are doing.  As for a play of mine that’s not done so often, I recently saw some work done from DMV TYRANT, not one of my better known plays, and I thought it worked very well.

Among the current crop of younger actors, is there anyone you think would be especially good in your work.

No relation to MISS WITHERSPOON-the-play, but I think Reese Witherspoon is very talented and very funny.  Also Robert Downey, Jr.  There had been talk of him in a revival of BEYOND THERAPY – it never happened, but I’d like to work with him.  Also Joan Cusack…




Categories: Theater

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