Q&A | Former drama student discusses his brand of disturbing comedy

After Christopher Durang DRA ’74 penned a musical with his friend and saw it performed at his New Jersey school in eighth grade, he realized he was destined for comedy. The audience laughed at what he wrote, even at lines that were not intended to be funny, he said.

But because his family is filled with an “awful lot of unhappiness” and “multitudes” of alcoholics, Durang said he developed a dark comic style that later won him acclaim for plays such as “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.” Durang is back in the spotlight with the show “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” playing at the Public Theater in New York through May 3. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it both “hilarious and disturbing” in his review.

Yet Durang said Brantley did not describe the play properly, leaving some readers, including his aunt, confused. The play, he explained, is about a woman who wakes up in a motel room married to a man who seems to be Middle Eastern. When she takes him to meet her family they mishear something and think he is a terrorist.

Durang talked to the News in a phone interview about his new play, studying at the Yale School of Drama and the classic Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

QWhat inspired you to write this play?

AThe idea for writing the play is somewhat quirky. Have you ever heard of this semi-game that sometimes theaters ask playwrights to do? There are 10 scenes supposed to be written by 10 different writers … I teach at Juilliard with [playwright] Marsha Norman and we have eight students at a time. The students said they wanted to write a tag play and asked me and Marsha to participate. I, having been through it once, said to them, “Whoever writes the first scene should come up with a really strong first scene with a lot of conflict and with a lot of implications of what else might happen …” So when I gave that advice, students said, “Well, why don’t [you] write the first scene.” I remembered an old movie about alcoholism starring Susan Hayward called “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” … In my recollection, after one of her alcoholic binges she wakes up married to someone and doesn’t remember the marriage … I always thought that sounded terrifying so I used that as I was writing [the scene]. [In my scene] the guy who [the main character] married was Middle Eastern and seemed kind of scary. So I had that scene sitting around. I also had written a little bit of the next scene …

QWhy write a play with political implications that does not take place within the government?

AI didn’t want to choose real people … It’s a dark comedy about the differences between red and blue states across the country. In many ways, [President Barack] Obama’s election portends a bit of softening, but the dichotomy between the different parts is rather stark still. I was looking for characters who would reflect those differences but not be based on real people. Somewhere in the middle of Act One when we learn the father is part of a shadow government … that actually does connect into government and that paranoid view. My play in a certain sense is a little bit in the style of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb…” It’s predominantly funny but then it gets darker for a while in the second act.

QWhat influenced your comic style?

AI have to say that I think my comic style is my own. I started writing that way in college a bit. I kind of showed up with a style. Among the things I think influenced me was [that] my mother loved theater so I knew about theater, and she brought me to it when I was little. I saw a lot of musical comedies, and I was very influenced by “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” — it’s a very cartoonish view of the business world. It influenced me so that I tended to write not realistically … Oddly enough, TV influenced me — things like “I Love Lucy.” It’s classic now but as a child I saw some of the first runs. Later on I read playwrights like Joe Orton, who wrote in a dark but farcical style. Screwball comedy movies that I watched on TV as a child influenced me too.

QHow did your time studying at the Yale School of Drama shape your style as a playwright?

AI had a really good time [at the School of Drama] and I thought it was valuable for me … When I was there one of the things I really liked was that Howard Stein [the associate dean and supervisor of the playwriting program] was very encouraging if you wanted to get your play done somewhere. Because I wrote comedy I could do it at the Yale Cabaret, or I could have a studio production or something … Back then no one was actually guaranteed a play production, and a lot of writers were very angry about that. I was in a positive frame mind and thought, “How do I get a production?” One of the ways I discovered was to befriend the directors … I think I was lucky because I did comic stuff.

QYou stayed in New Haven for another year after you graduated because the play you wrote with Albert Innaurato DRA ’74, “The Idiots Karamazov,” was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre. You also acted in your own show. Can you discuss this experience?

AThe first few weeks we were checking each other out suspiciously because we were both Catholic and writing about our Catholic upbringing to some degree. We both had nuns in our plays. I used to tell people, “Albert had Italian nuns who were violent and hitting people and my nuns tended to be Irish and repressed …” He and I became friends after a while … I had made a silent film when I was at college of [Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel] “The Brothers Karamazov.” He thought it was funny and that we should somehow jointly write a crackpot musical about “The Brothers Karamazov.” We did this first version, which was very crackpot, and Stein loved it. He showed it to the head of the acting department and scheduled it for a student production. In the world of the Drama School it was a big deal because a student production would have four weeks of rehearsal and a set and full costumes. And another thing was, our lead was Meryl Streep DRA ’75. Robert Brustein DRA ’51 [former dean of the Yale School of Drama and founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre] then saw the production and really loved it. He scheduled it for the Rep the next year. [It premiered in fall of 1974.] The role of the monk in this show has to become a pop star … Brustein had heard me sing in the Cabaret so he cast me … At the same time they were doing a serious production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book “The Possessed.”… I had a small part in this serious Dostoyevsky too.

Comments