Christopher Durang's Chekhovian Blender

Christopher Durang got an early start as a playwright. “When I was 8,” he told The Juilliard Journal (he teaches playwriting at the Juilliard School), “I announced to my mother I was going to write a play. It was my own two-page version of an I

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Christopher Durang
Christopher Durang

Christopher Durang got an early start as a playwright. “When I was 8,” he told The Juilliard Journal (he teaches playwriting at the Juilliard School), “I announced to my mother I was going to write a play. It was my own two-page version of an I Love Lucy episode, and my class at Our Lady of Peace School actually put on the play one afternoon instead of doing geography. It was a fairly conventional school, so why they did that I can’t imagine. I got to choose the cast and ‘direct.’ My fellow 8-year-olds laughed at the play, and I thought, ‘Yes, playwriting is for me!’ ”

Durang, now 66, has kept audiences laughing ever since with his absurdist, provocative writing. His most recent work, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, winner of the 2013 Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play, has been the most produced play on American stages for two seasons with nearly 40 theaters presenting it. It opens on Thursday at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where it will be onstage until May 23.

If you’re a devoted theatergoer, Durang’s title probably reminds you of Anton Chekhov. That’s intentional, although knowing the works of the Russian playwright is not a prerequisite. Durang’s Vanya, Sonia and Masha are mismatched siblings, named by academic parents who had a yen for community theater. Now late in middle age, Vanya and Sonia continue to live in rural eastern Pennsylvania on the family’s farm with a few cherry trees. (Durang constantly drops reminders of Chekhov, dollops of amusement for anyone who recognizes them.) Their lives have some angst and ennui, but they aren’t doing anything about it.

That’s in part because sister Masha has had a successful career as a movie star in forgettable movies, enabling her to pay their bills. But when she drops in for a weekend with her latest stud muffin, Spike, the contrast between her life and theirs becomes both evident and comic. Playhouse Associate Artist Michael Evan Haney, the production’s director, says on the Playhouse website, “It’s a play about siblings who are estranged (and rather weirdly stunted in their psychological growth) but who, over the course of the story, remember and rediscover what they really love about each other.” Even so, it’s a complicated and humorous path.

Finding love is a new destination for Durang, whose many satirical plays 

— from Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo to Beyond Therapy and Betty’s Summer Vacation — are hard-edged laugh riots full of pop-culture wit, works that one observer characterized as having a “poisonous innocence.” His new play has tons of humor, but Durang objects to a critic’s description of his script as “a sunny new play about gloomy people,” even though Chekhov’s themes of angst, jealousy, failure and entropy are evident.

He counters in an interview with the Wisconsin Gazette, “ ‘Gloomy people’ might describe Chekhov, but there is something much more energetic about my characters.” He says they are “likeable and you sort of root for them.” “ ‘Gloomy’ doesn’t suggest energy, and my characters are full of energy,” he says. 

They certainly resemble Chekhov’s characters, but as Durang has repeatedly said, he has taken Chekhov themes and characters and mixed them all up, as if he put them in a “comic blender.” In one interview he quips, “Adding apples, carrots and kale.”

Durang began writing the play when he recognized that he was the same age as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a disappointed man who is worried he has wasted his life. “I started to write a ‘what if’ scenario,” he told American Theatre magazine. “What if I never left home? What if I and an adopted sister took care of our aging parents while our famous actress sister traveled the world, having a life?”

Elements of Durang’s life often show up his plays — his father’s alcoholism, his parents’ divorce, his own sexual orientation — but he asserts that this play is more “what if.” He’s very much like Vanya, but his own life has been a successful career in theater. Perhaps that accounts for the unexpected warmth in his latest work.

Director Haney says, “I love the way this play is extremely funny, but it’s also very real. It can turn on a dime to some very tender and beautiful and honest moments that are very moving.” It’s those qualities that make Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike feel as if Durang has entered into a new phase — still full of laughter, not to mention some serious scorn about contemporary life, but with warmth behind it.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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