I’m backstage, clutching a bloodstained dress wrapped in dry cleaner’s plastic, attempting slow my breaths by engaging my diaphragm.
I hear my cue and enter to greet my moody teenager daughter, who, for some entirely mysterious reason, recently slashed her thighs open with a razor blade.
“Hello, dear, I'm back. Did you miss me? Say yes. (Pause.) Of course you missed me. A daughter always misses her mother.”
On the word, “mother,” I pull open my trench coat to reveal a frilly blue evening dress, complete with ample cleavage: decidedly un-mother-like and totally inappropriate attire for running errands and soothing a suicidal child on a chilly Tuesday morning. The audience bursts into laughter at the sight of it.
That was a long time ago, but I can still hear the laughter, see the bright cobalt blue of the dress, still taste the “banana bread” that I invent later in the play. (Yes, invent, thank you. I shove a banana through a loaf of bread. And it’s delicious.)
I think that’s the moment I fell in love. With theatre, with comedy, and, most certainly, with the wacky and wonderful playwright Christopher Durang.
The play was ‘dentity Crisis, and I played Edith Fromage, the (according to her) inventor of cheese. Edith, though slightly unhinged, is energetic, quick on her feet, and passionate about life.
Oh, and she’s a terrible, TERRIBLE mother.
I was 18 or so at the time (it was community theatre; we were flexible with age-appropriate casting). Suicide was not an abstract concept to me, nor was absentee or negligent parenting. Yet I was in no way hardened to the evils of the world; I was sensitive enough to cry my eyes out at cheesy phone commercials, and idealistic enough to want to save the whole world from sorrow. My number one wish at the time was “Happiness for everyone,” and I used to lie in bed at night wishing I could absorb the pain of friends and family members just to ease their burdens.
And yet I found great humor in “soothing” my very troubled daughter by telling her, “No one in our family has ever attempted suicide before now, and no one since either. It’s a sign of defeat, and no one should do it. You know what I think? …. I don’t think you ever attempted suicide at all. That’s what I think.”
Delivered right, lines like this give an audience permission to laugh at a subject that would otherwise be hard to see as anything other than somber. Suicide, rightly, isn’t something we normally chortle at. But doing so, I learned, can be incredibly cathartic for all involved.
This is also when I learned that Christopher Durang is a master at taking the darkest topics and making them hysterical.
Here’s a partial list of themes Durang tackles in his plays:
● Religious hypocrisy
● Old age
● Death (and reincarnation)
● Mental illness
● Climate change
The stuff of light comedy? Not exactly. But only a fool would call Durang light.
As he describes in a Dramatists Guild Foundation interview a couple years ago, he was in college during the Vietnam War, and experienced the disillusionment with government systems and leaders common to his generation. Around the same time, his mother was suffering from late-stage cancer, which she soon died from. He found himself questioning much of the religious (Catholic) teaching he’d grown up with. He says he did not feel angry about it, but was simply struck but how very strange it all was.
He wrote Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You during this time, a play described by the New York Times as “an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in its most savage moments,” which “goes after the Catholic Church with a vengeance that might well have shocked the likes of … Lenny Bruce.”
Durang’s brilliance lies in this dichotomy. He takes the nastiest bits of the human experience and lets us in on the joke of it all. Durang achieves a modern version of Chekhovian comedy: in his plays, human folly is, in the right light, hysterical.
These days -- while we all glance around nervously wondering whether we’ll be wiped out first by nuclear war or climate change -- it can be hard to find the humor.
I recently read Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them. It features Felicity, a “perfectly nice” young woman who wakes up after a drunken night out to find herself married to Zamir, who sounds American, looks Middle Eastern, and is prone to violent outbursts (verbal only, but they’re nasty and terrifying). She wants out of the marriage but is frightened of her husband’s reaction to the idea of an annulment. She seeks assistance from her parents but her mother is helpless, living in a world of delusions, and her father promptly decides Zamir is a terrorist and only escalates the threat of violence that Felicity is trying to escape.
The play is pre-#MeToo, having premiered at The Public theatre in New York nearly ten years ago. My stomach twisted on more than one occasion at what we would now call the “toxic masculinity” of the male characters, and, equally nausea-inducing, the kowtowing females who surround them.
As I read it, I thought, “We can’t do this play any more.” I thought, “There are SO MANY problems with this.“
Not long after, I was startling my fellow subway passengers with bursts of laughter. By the end of the piece I was convinced the play is more relevant than ever.
And yet, according to Dramatists Play Service, Torture has just two runs coming up, in Galveston, Texas and Fort Lauderdale, FL, both nonprofessional productions. Compare this to the 51 upcoming productions of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and 21 of The Actor’s Nightmare.
Perhaps it’s just one of his trickier plays. The Galveston production advertises the show as “Honing in our private terrors both at home and abroad, Durang somehow relieves our fears in this black comedy for an era of all color alerts.” “Somehow” is the operative word here. Done wrong, the play could be SO offensive to SO many people, and leave us all angry and sad. But done right (and again, that’s the trick), I think it could help move us all forward.
In the Dramatists Guild interview, David Lindsay-Abaire says about Durang, “His characters are deeply damaged, often in a funny way, often in a painful way.”
Durang is not simple to direct or perform for this very reason, and he’s aware of it. He has taken to writing explanations in the backs of his plays, describing the “this not that” nature of many of his characters. Finding the right tone is key, he tells us, and he goes through potential pitfalls of each character.
In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang tackles Chekhov. It’s not a parody, but it plays with the characters and themes – in particular, the misery of realizing you’ve grown old without having done anything of value with your life. And – no surprise here – it’s volumes funnier than any Chekhov I’ve ever seen.
(And this is coming from someone who probably horrified the good people of the indie theatre group The Instigators by busting a gut a good four or five times during their (brilliant) production of The Seagull last year.)
‘dentity Crisis wasn’t the last Durang play I did. I grew up in a sleepy suburb outside of Toronto but was blessed to meet a director and writer in town, Jeff Morrison, who loved Durang and knew how to make it work. I played Sarah in Actor’s Nightmare, Amanda in For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, and Naomi in Naomi in the Living Room, all in the span of a couple of years.
And so the taste is forever on my tongue, the impulse in my gut, to mine the darkest, messiest pockets of our souls and find a way to laugh at it all.
In these dark and messy times, we need more Durang in our lives than ever before.
Alison Preece is an actress, writer and producer living in New York City. Her last piece for OnStage Blog focused on the dramatized stories of American women in the Vietnam War. www.alisonpreece.com, @APreeceNYC