Tony-winning playwright Christopher Durang says his comic mashup arises from admiration for the Russian master.
Celebrated American playwright Christopher Durang wants to make one thing clear. His work “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is not a sendup of Chekhov.
True, Durang’s leading characters are named for famous figures in Chekhov’s oeuvre. And the cherry orchard setting and certain narrative elements, including the fact that the action takes place in a country home where rival siblings confront each other, are similar to those of the Russian master.
But Durang’s work, which is set in Bucks County, Penn., where he lives with his partner, is a contemporary comedy that does not require knowledge of Chekhov to access. And the play comes from a place of admiration, not ridicule, unlike his other works such as “The Idiots Karamazov” or “For Whom the Southern Belles Toll,” which mocks “The Glass Menagerie.”
“It’s not a parody at all, like the two I did of Tennessee Williams,” said Durang, 65, by phone from Pennsylvania, where he is rehearsing the role of Vanya for a production that is about to open. “It’s closer to an homage, although if it would end like Chekhov, the characters would still be in the same place where they were at the beginning, but just very bitter.”
“I like to think of it as putting Chekhov’s themes and characters into a blender in America in the present time,” Durang said.
The playwright has faint hope that he will make it to the Twin Cities to see “Vanya and Sonia,” which opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater in his first major production in the Upper Midwest. The play, directed by Joel Sass, involves overweening celebrity, narcissism and an often naked twentysomething.
A touch of the Greek
Masha, a successful movie star who is five times divorced, returns to the family home with her boy toy to see her two siblings: gay brother, Vanya, and adopted sister, Sonia. Sonia and Vanya spent the most productive years of their lives taking care of their now-dead parents while Masha was blowing up in the movies. There is enough resentment to go around, especially for Masha, who owns the house the siblings live in and pays all the bills for the property, including the salary of Cassandra, a maid who likes to make prophecies.
“Durang clearly has a deep affection for Chekhov, which does not preclude him putting a clown nose on him,” said director Sass. “This play is really about these siblings who are arrested in their development. They are very childlike in how they relate to each other. But when you think of it, people become childlike as they get older.”
Durang, the only child of an architect father and secretary mother, grew up attending Catholic schools in New Jersey. He knew playwriting was his destiny early on; he wrote his first work in second grade, and it was produced by the school. Productions of his plays would continue through middle and high schools, as well as at Harvard, where he earned his degree in English, and at the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a master’s of fine arts in playwriting and also acted.
His plays often deal with issues that have been present since childhood, including Roman Catholic orthodoxy, alcoholism, divorce and abuse. “My family, I love them, but they were always fighting,” he said. “It was traumatic, although it gave me good material.”
His awards include the best-play Tony in 2013 for “Vanya,” and Obies for “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” his 1979 one-act about Vatican II, and “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” a bitter comedy about divorce. “Mrs. Witherspoon,” his absurdist comedy about a grumpy spirit waiting to be reincarnated, was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.
Durang wrote “Vanya and Sonia” with specific actors in mind. Masha was vaguely inspired by Sigourney Weaver, his Yale classmate and dear friend most famous for playing the lead in “Alien.” She played Masha in New York.
“Sigourney and I go back a bit,” he said. “She was in my plays at Yale. We played a brother and sister in one of them. I’m happy that she’s still making movies. Of course, Masha is not entirely based on her; she’s not been married five times. I wanted the character to be a movie star, but it’s really Madame Arkadina [of “The Seagull”].”
He wrote Vanya for himself, but had another friend, David Hyde Pierce, play that role in New York.
“They were worried because it’s such a big role and my attention was also being needed for rewriting things and conferring with the director. That was the right choice. Now that the role has been established, I’m free to do it.”
In Minneapolis, Broadway actor Candy Buckley plays Masha. This is her third Durang play. She performed in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” a comedy about a dysfunctional, alcoholic Catholic family, and “Media Amok,” in which she donned a fat suit to play Roseanne Barr.