Christopher Durang, Tony-winning playwright with acid wit, dies at 75

Christopher Durang, a Tony Award-winning playwright and satirist whose blending of absurdist humor, acid wit and philosophical explorations of rage, anguish, family and faith made him a mainstay of American theater for more than four decades, died April 2 at his home in Pipersville, Pa. He was 75.

The cause was complications from logopenic primary progressive aphasia, a neurodegenerative disease, said his agent, Patrick Herold. Mr. Durang was diagnosed with the condition in 2016 but continued to write, albeit slowly, for a few more years.

Although he was courteous and gentle in person, Mr. Durang was best known for plays that left audiences feeling disoriented and unsettled, marked by a brooding sense of menace or existential angst that was partly concealed by bawdy humor, surrealist gags and verbally dexterous monologues.

His work was filled with cultural references (Mick Jagger, Patty Hearst and Bertolt Brecht) and satirized theatrical forms and institutions, poking fun at traditional sitcoms, soap operas and protest plays while also lampooning priests, therapists, parents and other authority figures.

At times, he found humor in the darkest of subjects. His black comedy “Miss Witherspoon” (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, told the story of a depressed woman who dies by suicide, travels to the afterlife and refuses to be reincarnated, asking, “Why can’t I just be left alone to fester and brood in my bodiless spirit state?” He described one of his later plays, the post-9/11 satire “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” (2009), as “a comic catharsis” after eight years of the George W. Bush administration.

“Sometimes people are offended by my plays,” he said in an interview with theater scholar Arthur Holmberg. “They have said no, no this is serious, there is no laughter involved. But I like to mix the serious with laughter. It’s a way of admitting that the stories we’re all involved in are crazy.”

Mr. Durang drew on his own Catholic school upbringing for the religious satire “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” (1979), his first commercial hit. The title character, a dogmatic nun, lectures the audience on her faith’s basic tenets before being interrupted by a group of embittered former students. Verbal sparring ensues, along with a bit of absurdist violence: When one of her ex-students reveals that he is gay, the sister shoots him dead and declares, “I’ve sent him to heaven!”

The play ran off-Broadway for more than two years, with a cast led by a comically icy Elizabeth Franz as Sister Mary. (Discovering that one of her wards has a brain tumor and is overcome with fear, she responds with impatience: “Now I thought I had explained what happens after death to you already. There is heaven, hell and purgatory. What is the problem?”)

Mr. Durang’s other notable plays included “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (1985), an almost inconceivably buoyant comedy that was inspired by the relationship between his father, an alcoholic, and his mother, who battled depression and had multiple stillbirths. Onstage, the children’s bodies were tossed on the floor by doctors; the mother keeps a calendar recording the days in which her husband is “half drunk” or “dead drunk.”

The play demonstrated what New York Times theater critic Frank Rich described as Mr. Durang’s “special knack for wrapping life’s horrors in the primary colors of absurdist comedy” and brought him his second of three off-Broadway Obie Awards.

Nearly three decades later, he won the Tony Award for best play for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a darkly comic homage to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The play premiered in 2012 and moved to Broadway the next year, with a cast that included his longtime friends Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.

Set at a Bucks County, Pa., farmhouse that resembled Mr. Durang’s own country home, the play centered on the relationship between three gloomy siblings, including a middle-aged Vanya who rails against the indignities of 21st-century life while lamenting the passing of a kinder, gentler era when “we licked postage stamps.”

The play became Mr. Durang’s biggest hit, making him feel “like I’ve won the lottery” when it was picked up by more than two-dozen regional theaters. Its success, he speculated, may have been because of its ending, which he described as “hopeful, or at least not dark” — a stark departure from such earlier plays as “Sister Mary.”

“I am not purposely trying to be commercial,” he told the Times, “but in my later years, the world seems so upsetting that I want the relief of something working out. You go out of the theater feeling a little relieved that the worst things didn’t happen to the characters.”

Christopher Ferdinand Durang was born in Montclair, N.J., on Jan. 2, 1949. His mother was a secretary, and his father was an architect who fought in World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. They separated when he was 13.

“It was hellish being around them,” Mr. Durang recalled in an introductory essay to “Christopher Durang Explains It All for You,” which collected six of his plays. “I never knew when they were going to explode into screaming.”

His mother took him to musicals at the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and at age 8 Mr. Durang wrote his first play, which spanned two pages and was “more or less plagiarized,” he said, “from the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode where Lucy has a baby.”

After graduating from a Benedictine high school, he studied English at Harvard College, where he slipped into a deep depression that was exacerbated, he said, by his parents’ divorce and by his realization that he was gay, at a time when homosexuality was still widely criminalized.

By his senior year, he had rediscovered his love of theater, taking a seminar with playwright William Alfred and putting together a musical parody of the Gospels, which included such songs as “The Dove That Done Me Wrong,” sung by the Virgin Mary. When a Jesuit priest complained in a letter to the student newspaper, calling Mr. Durang “a pig trampling in a sanctuary,” he took it as a badge of honor — including the letter, by his account, as part of his application to the Yale School of Drama.

Mr. Durang graduated from Harvard in 1971 and received a master’s degree from Yale in 1974, the same year he staged his play “The Idiots Karamazov” — a collaboration with fellow playwriting student Albert Innaurato — at Yale Repertory Theatre. The production starred Meryl Streep, another Yale student, as translator Constance Garnett.

Four years later, Mr. Durang made it to Broadway with the short-lived musical “A History of the American Film,” a hyperkinetic tour of Hollywood cinema that interwove references to some 200 films. The production brought him a Tony nomination for best book of a musical, although critics were mixed on the show.

“Like a circus car driven by clowns, powered by soap bubbles and fitted out with … exploding wheels, Christopher Durang’s play wobbles and squeals through some 60 years of American movies,” reviewer Richard Eder wrote in the Times. “Sometimes it stalls or bogs down, but it always gets going again.”

Mr. Durang received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1979. In the wake of “Sister Mary,” he found mixed success with plays, including the psychiatric sendup “Beyond Therapy” (1981), which had a brief run on Broadway and was adapted into a Robert Altman movie, and “Laughing Wild” (1987), a comic two-hander that lasted less than three weeks off-Broadway. The show’s dismal reception caused him to leave town for a rented house in Connecticut, where he lived for three years.

“I really got phobic about New York criticism,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, the year he returned to Broadway with “Sex and Longing,” another poorly received comedy. “It was cumulative,” he said.

For a time, Mr. Durang supported himself with acting jobs. He had performed onstage since the 1970s, headlining a cabaret show, “Das Lusitania Songspiel,” in which he and Weaver reimagined Broadway shows like “Evita” in the style of the German theatrical collaborators playwright Brecht and composer Kurt Weill.

Mr. Durang later had small roles in movie comedies, including as a put-upon business executive in “The Secret of My Success” (1987), starring Michael J. Fox, and appeared in some of his own plays, including as the narrator in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and as the berobed Infant of Prague in “Laughing Wild.”

From 1994 to 2016, he co-chaired the playwriting program at the Juilliard School in New York with Marsha Norman. He also led a writing workshop for the grown children of alcoholics.

Mr. Durang’s sole immediate survivor is writer and actor John Augustine, with whom he had performed in a cabaret show called “Chris Durang and Dawne.” Mr. Durang said Augustine, his partner since 1986 and husband since 2014, had a “sunny nature” that “opened up positive feelings, possibilities, intuitions,” helping rejuvenate his life and work.

When he was just getting started as a playwright, “I had a bad message in my head that nothing ever works out,” Mr. Durang recalled in a 2006 interview with the Harvard Crimson. “I still have that message. Although now that I’m older, I go take a nap or tell myself to be quiet.”

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