During the closing stretch of his tenure as artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, Drama School Dean Stan Wojewodski Jr. has turned to the man who is perhaps the school’s most famous living playwright — and its most acerbicly funny one.
Christopher Durang DRA ’74 has carved a reputation as a writer whose work is savage and intelligent. His plays, both lauded and criticized for their intensity, are seen as accessible and very funny, if sometimes hard to swallow.
His latest play, “Betty’s Summer Vacation” — which begins at the Rep next week — puts a serial killer, a flasher and a sex maniac in a haunted beach house. It is a combination of dark humor and drama that causes some audience members, Durang said, to say he has “gone too far.”
The play marks Durang’s return to the Yale Rep after a 27-year absence.
“Betty’s Summer Vacation” is about the American obsession with the tabloid lifestyle and people like Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson, Durang said. He added that he is, himself, “hooked” on popular culture.
“The play definitely grew out of the tabloid narcissism that comes from TV,” Durang said.
The director, noted regional drama figure Doug Hughes, said the play is “not pious”.
“We know we’re glutted with news. We know how the appetite of the media is insatiable. We know we should be occupied with high things,” Hughes said. “But Durang reveals the delight of these fascinations — the pleasures and pitfalls of addiction.”
The play has been produced before, including runs in New York and Boston. Durang said that preview audiences, unsure about the play’s content, had varying reactions to the strong satire.
“It’s almost as if some audience members don’t want to mix portions on their dinner plate: ‘Don’t mix drama and comedy,'” Durang said. “I’m perhaps naively surprised when audience members are offended.”
As broad as the social commentary may be, Hughes said the play’s fierce humor demands that the audience be close and condensed.
“To be honest, I wish the Rep were a less cavernous, vast place,” he said. But he also emphasized his happiness with the production and with what he called the “genius” of the playwright — whom he compared to Moliere.
“There’s a great deal of narrative structure — with which he furnished his satiric genius,” he said.
Durang said that the ongoing action in Afghanistan should not influence the interpretation of the play, and that popular culture has begun to drift back to where it was before Sept 11.
“I was watching the Today show, and it’s starting to go back to really garbage things again,” he said.
He said he knew of a group that was in rehearsal for “Betty’s Summer Vacation” on Sept. 11, and that the group ultimately decided to go on with the production.
“Some people found it oddly meaningful — I don’t know how,” Durang said, laughing.