Christopher Durang, Playwright Who Mixed High Art and Low Humor, Dies at 75

Christopher Durang, a Tony Award-winning playwright and a master satirist, died Tuesday night at his home in Pipersville, Pa., in Bucks County. He was 75.

His agent, Patrick Herold, said the cause was complications of aphasia. In 2016, Mr. Durang was found to have a rare form of dementia, logopenic primary progressive aphasia. The diagnosis was made public in 2022.

An acid, impish writer, Mr. Durang never met a classic (“The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Snow White”) that he couldn’t skewer. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he established himself as a hyperliterate jester and an anarchic clown. Regarding subject and theme, he pogoed from sex to metaphysics to serial killers to psychology, and he had a way of collapsing high art and jokes that aimed much lower.

“He’s so scaldingly funny,” the actress Sigourney Weaver, a friend and collaborator since she met Mr. Durang at the Yale School of Drama, said in an interview. “You laugh with horror at what’s going on and your sheer inability to do anything about it.”

But even in his most uproarious work — like his early play, the sex and psychoanalysis farce “Beyond Therapy,” or his late hit “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a delirious homage to Chekhov — there was often a strong undertow of melancholy.

“There was a darkness to some of his plays, and there was great humanity to some of his plays,” André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and a champion of Mr. Durang’s work since the early 1980s, said in an interview. “He was a very, very funny writer. But what he wrote about and what lay underneath those plays was quite serious.”

His gift, the critic Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote in 1985, was a “special knack for wrapping life’s horrors in the primary colors of absurdist comedy.”

Mr. Durang was also a spirited performer; he often appeared onstage and occasionally on television and in film. He originated the role of Matt in the Public Theater production of his devastating 1985 autobiographical comedy, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” and he starred as the Infant of Prague, among other roles, in his 1987 comedy “Laughing Wild,” at Playwrights Horizons in New York.

In the 1970s, he and Ms. Weaver co-starred in a late-night cabaret act, “Das Lusitania Songspiel,” which parodied Bertolt Brecht. In 1986, he joined her on “Saturday Night Live.” He later headlined a cabaret act, “Chris Durang and Dawne.” Dawne, his backup singers, who were played by the actress Sherry Anderson and the writer and performer John Augustine. Mr. Augustine and Mr. Durang were married in 2014, and his husband is his only survivor.

Christopher Ferdinand Durang was born on Jan. 2, 1949, in Montclair, N.J., the only child of Francis Ferdinand Durang Jr. and Patricia Elizabeth Durang. His father was an architect., and his mother was a secretary who also managed the home. (His father’s alcoholism and his mother’s several stillbirths and periods of intense depression were childhood upheavals that Mr. Durang would translate into “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”)

His mother also gave him his first taste of theater, taking him several times a year to plays and musicals at the Paper Mill Playhouse in nearby Millburn, N.J. He wrote his first play, a two-page work inspired by the sitcom “I Love Lucy,” at the age of 8. His Catholic elementary school staged it. He later co-wrote two musicals, which his junior high and high school, run by Benedictine monks, put on.

In college, at Harvard, Mr. Durang had his first serious experience of depression and stopped writing. But by his senior year, in a seminar with the playwright and classicist William Alfred, he had returned to plays. He wrote a short script, “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe”; when it was read aloud, the playwright and director Emily Mann, then a fellow student, recalled, Mr. Alfred announced: “We will know who Chris Durang is. He is going to be a leading voice in American theater.”

Mr. Durang graduated from Harvard in 1971 and then matriculated at the Yale School of Drama, graduating in 1974. That year, his play “The Idiots Karamazov,” written with Albert Innaurato, was performed at the Yale Repertory Theater, co-starring Meryl Streep. (Both were also fellow students with him at the Yale school, as was the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, another close friend.) “A History of American Film,” a musical for which Mr. Durang wrote the lyrics, played on Broadway briefly in 1978.

His breakout came a year later, with “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” an absurdist, lacerating one-act profoundly influenced by Mr. Durang’s years in Catholic school. (Catholic imagery and themes would appear in many of his plays.) The play won him his first Obie Award.

In an admiring review in The Times, Mr. Rich wrote, “Only a writer of real talent can write an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in its most savage moments.” Mr. Durang, he confirmed, was just such a writer.

“He just broke every barrier, every taboo and wrote about the things that most mattered to him,” Ms. Mann said.

During this period, Mr. Durang began taking on small television and film roles. He liked acting, he later wrote on his website, as “I actually find it relaxing how little responsibility I have.”

“I think to myself: ‘I’m just responsible for making my part in this scene work,’” he added.

But as a playwright, he found that the success of “Sister Mary Ignatius” was one that he couldn’t easily replicate. (It was adapted for a television movie in 2001, starring Diane Keaton.) His subsequent Off Broadway runs were limited, and the Broadway runs of his 1982 play, “Beyond Therapy,” and his 1996 play, “Sex and Longing,” were even shorter. For more than a decade, critics disparaged him. Ben Brantley of The Times wrote that “Sex and Longing” “offers only faint flashes of the acid, absurdist wit and demented comic logic that has made Mr. Durang our closest answer to Oscar Wilde.”

Ms. Weaver, a star of that play and many other Durang comedies, said she believed that the critics were wrong. “Critics would say, ‘Oh, his work is sophomoric,’ because he wasn’t pretentious about it,” she said. “He was trying to find out where there was justice and where there was fairness. And he kept being disappointed.”

A few years later, Mr. Durang was again embraced by critics, Mr. Brantley among them. “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” which premiered in 1999 at Playwrights Horizons, a fiendish satire of the very American pastime of treating tragedy as fodder entertainment, was viewed as a return to blackly comic form. He followed it with “Miss Witherspoon” (a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize), “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” (2009) and “Vanya and Sonia, and Masha and Spike,” a sensation at Lincoln Center in 2012 before it transferred to Broadway in 2013.

“Vanya and Sonia” starred Ms. Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen, another frequent Durang muse. Set in a Bucks County home not unlike Mr. Durang’s, the play fed a couple of his constant themes — family, desire — through a Chekhovian grinder. Though larded with audacious jokes and sight gags, the play had a strong emotive core.

“Audiences very much responded to it from the first performance,” Mr. Bishop said. “They just laughed and laughed and laughed. And then they were quite moist eyed at the end of the play.”

The Broadway transfer won Mr. Durang a Tony Award for best play, his only one.

In 1994, he and Marsha Norman became co-chairs of the playwrights program at the Juilliard School. Graduates of that program during their joint tenure include David Auburn, Katori Hall, Joshua Harmon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Martyna Majok.

He retired from that position in 2016, the same year he was diagnosed with dementia. For a few years after that he continued to write. His final produced play, “Turning Off the Morning News,” a dark comedy of gun violence, ran in 2018 at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J. A further script, “Harriet and Other Horrible People,” remains unproduced.

“He was deeply serious and wildly funny,” said Ms. Norman, who taught alongside him for three decades. “That’s who he was. Always.”

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