Christopher Durang

 

Long Biography


photo by John Schisler

Christopher Durang is a playwright and actor.  His plays have been seen on and off- Broadway, around the country and abroad.  He usually writes comedy – either satire or dark comedy or parody or just absurdist.   He has a B.A. in English from Harvard College, and an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama. 

As a student at Yale he had several plays presented at the School, and he especially worked at the Yale Cabaret.  With fellow playwriting student Albert Innaurato he co-authored and performed in two very crackpot cabaret pieces, I Don’t Generally Like Poetry But Have You Read “Trees”? and The Life Story Of Mitzi Gaynor.  Durang later collaborated with fellow student Wendy Wasserstein on another cabaret piece, When Dinah Shore Ruled The Earth.  

His first professional production was of The Idiots Karamazov (co-authored with Innaurato) at the Yale Repertory Theatre, in a production starring then student Meryl Streep as the 80 year old nutty “translatrix” Constance Garnett. 

After that, his play The Nature And Purpose Of The Universe was presented off-off Broadway at the Direct Theatre in 1975. 

His play Titanic, starring his Yale classmate Sigourney Weaver, was done in 1976 at the Direct Theatre, and transferred to off-Broadway along with a satiric cabaret, Das Lusitania Songspiel, co-authored by Durang and Ms. Weaver, and featuring both of them. 

In 1976 his play A History Of The American Film was accepted as one of 12 plays done by the prestigious Eugene O’Neill National Playwriting Conference; and from that, Durang’s play received an unusual shared “triple premiere” in 1977, having three back-to-back productions at the Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Conn., the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.  The following year A History Of The American Film was presented on Broadway, earning Durang a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical.

In 1979, Durang and Sigourney Weaver rewrote their Das Lusitania Songspiel and it was done again in the 1979-80 season as a late night show at the Westside Arts Theatre and became a cult success.  The piece satirized the work of Brecht and Weill, and presented Brecht-Weill mishmashes of current shows, such as Evita, the Demon First Lady of Fleet Street.   Durang and Weaver were both nominated for Drama Desk awards for Best Performer in a Musical.

SISTER MARY, BEYOND THERAPY

In 1980 Durang’s one act play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was presented for three weeks at the Ensemble Studio Theatre off-off-Broadway and received rave reviews, earning Obie awards for Durang for playwriting and for actress Elizabeth Franz for her portrayal of Sister Mary.  

Producers attempted to raise money to move the play to a commercial production for over a year, but without success.   Then Andre Bishop came to the rescue in 1981 and re-presented Sister Mary Ignatius… at his Playwrights Horizons theatre, again with Ms. Franz and the director Jerry Zaks, but this time with a new curtain raiser Durang wrote called The Actor’s Nightmare.

The critics embraced Sister Mary again, and the play was moved to off-Broadway, where it ran for over two and a half years.  Ms. Franz played the role for a year; subsequent actresses included Nancy Marchand, Mary Louise Wilson, Kathleen Chalfont, Patricia Gage, and Lynn Redgrave. 

(And in San Francisco, Sister was played by Ms. Redgrave, then Cloris Leachman, then Peggy Cass.  And in Los Angeles she was played by Elizabeth Huddle, Ms. Redgrave, and Valerie Curtin.)

In 1981 he also wrote Beyond Therapy on commission from the Phoenix Theatre, which  presented the play off-Broadway starring Sigourney Weaver as Prudence and Stephen Collins as Bruce, directed by Jerry Zaks.

In 1982 the play was presented again, the last third of it rewritten.  This time it was presented on Broadway, starring Dianne Wiest as Prudence and John Lithgow as Bruce.  David Hyde Pierce, getting his Equity card in his first professional production,  played the small but funny role of the waiter Andrew.  Peter Michael Goetz played the male therapist, Kate McGregor-Stewart played the female therapist, and Jack Gilpin played Bob.

MORE PLAYS, TV/MOVIE WORK

His next play, Baby With The Bathwater, premiered in 1983 at Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, directed by Mark Linn-Baker and featuring Cherry Jones and Tony Shalhoub.  

Playwrights Horizons presented the New York premiere of Baby… in 1983 also, directed by Jerry Zaks and featuring Christine Estabrook and W.H. Macy, with Dana Ivey as Nanny and playwright-actor Keith Reddin as Daisy.

Durang then wrote a teleplay for a PBS series called Trying Times, as did other playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein, George C. Wolfe, Albert Innaurato, and Beth Henley.  Durang’s half hour was called The Visit and was about an alarming visit from a high school girl friend now grown up and gone mad.  It starred Swoosie Kurtz as the high school girl friend, and Jeff Daniels and Julie Hagerty as the unfortunate couple receiving her visit.   It was directed by Alan Arkin.  (This teleplay was later adapted for stage as Wanda’s Visit and was presented in 1994 in an evening of one acts at the Manhattan Theatre Club called Durang/Durang.)

In the 80s Durang wrote screenplays – House of Husbands co-authored by Wendy Wasserstein; and an original for Warner Bros. called The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance

In 1985 Joe Papp’s Public Theatre presented Durang’s The Marriage Of Bette And Boo.  It was directed by Jerry Zaks, and had a remarkable cast including Joan Allen and Graham Beckel as Bette and Boo, along with Olympia Dukakis, Patricia Falkenhain, Kathryn Grody, Bill McCutcheon, Bill Moor, Mercedes Ruehl, Richard B. Shull, and Durang as Matt.  Shortly after opening, the play won Obie awards for Durang in playwriting, Zaks in directing, Loren Sherman in set design, and the entire 10 person cast won an Ensemble Acting Obie award.

After that Durang wrote a sketch for Carol Burnett and became a staff writer for the ABC special Carol And Robin And Whoopi And Carl, directed by Harvey Korman.  Carol Burnett and Robin Williams were featured in Durang’s funeral sketch, and Williams won an Emmy award for the special (which sometimes shows up on the Disney Channel).

ACTING IN MOVIES, NIGHTCLUBS; LAUGHING WILD

Around the mid-80s, Durang started to get small roles in movies.  His first speaking role was as Davis the put upon  executive in Herbert Ross’ The Secret Of My Success starring Michael J. Fox.  On Durang’s third day of shooting, Ross hired Durang to punch up some of the dialogue (as playwright Peter Stone had already done with some of the script); and so all the lines Durang got to say he actually wrote, as well as tweaking some of the other scenes.

Durang’s next play was the two-hander Laughing Wild, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1987 and starred E. Katherine Kerr and Durang, directed by Ron Lagomarsino.

In 1988 Durang wrote a short play for the “Home Series” in the downtown theatre called Home for Contemporary Theatre (which later became the theatre Here).  The short play was Naomi In The Living Room, directed by Durang and featuring Sherry Anderson, John Augustine and Elizabeth Alley.  A couple of years later the play was also presented at part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre one act marathon.

In 1989 Durang returned to cabaret with his mock nightclub act Chris Durang And Dawne at the Criterion Center in New York City.   In the act, Durang said he was a playwright but claimed to have found it too hard and so was hoping that doing a lounge act would be easier.  His back-up group “Dawne” was played by John Augustine and Sherry Anderson, and the three of them performed songs they claimed they'd been singing around the country at Ramada Inns.  

Directed by Deborah Lapidus, the act became a late night cult hit.   And Durang/Augustine/ Anderson performed the act in several other versions: in the early 90s they were featured in a weekly variety show at the Rainbow Room; then in 1994 they hosted and performed a variety show of their own at Caroline’s Comedy Club, and had such guests as Sigourney Weaver, Al Franken Jr., Julie Halston, Reno, Jody Gelb and Savion Glover.  In 1995 they performed an updated version at the Triad Club in New York City, and all three performers won Bistro awards.

VARIED PROJECTS IN THE 90s

In the 1990’s Durang was in New York City less.  In 1990 he went to Los Angeles and played opposite Jean Smart in Laughing Wild, directed by Dennis Erdman at the Tiffany Theatre.  Both Smart and Durang received Drama Logue awards.

Then he was hired by Warner Bros. to write a sitcom; and sold a crackpot series called Dysfunction! – The TV Show, which though was not picked up.

American Repertory Theatre then did his play Media Amok, directed by Les Waters and featuring Anne Pitoniak, Alvin Epstein, Christine Estabrook, and Lewis Black.

He acted in some more films – The Butcher’s Wife, Housesitter, Mr. North.

In 1993 Durang was thrilled to be cast in Putting It Together, a compilation of Stephen Sondheim songs put together to tell a story.  Durang played the “provocateur” who stirred things up at a party, and he got to sing and try to dance with Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins, Rachel York, and Michael Rupert.  Produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Julia McKenzie, this show marked Julie Andrews' first appearance on a stage since Camelot.  The Cast Recording of  "Putting It Together" is available on CD from amazon.com

In 1994 his one act play For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls was the hit of the Ensemble Studio Theatre one act marathon in a production directed by Walter Bobbie, featuring Lizbeth MacKay, Keith Reddin, David Aaron Baker, and Patricia Randall.

Later in 1994 Manhattan Theatre Club presented an evening of Durang one acts called Durang/Durang, which included For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, as well as five other one acts by Durang.  The evening was also directed by Walter Bobbie, with the same cast as before with the additions of Patricia Elliott and Becky Ann Baker.

In 1994 Durang and playwright Marsha Norman were named co-chairs of the Playwriting Program at the Juilliard School in Manhattan.  Since that time to the present, Durang and Norman have run the program, which includes only 8 students a year; and many of their graduates have gone on to distinguish themselves in the professional theatre.

In 1995 Durang played a Congressman who sings “They Like Ike” in the Encores production of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam starring Tyne Daly.

In 1996 Lincoln Center presented his play Sex And Longing at the Cort Theatre on Broadway, as part of their season.  The play was directed by Garland Wright, and featured Sigourney Weaver as Lulu, with Guy Boyd, Dana Ivey, Peter Michael Goetz, Jay Goede and Eric Thal.

In the late 90s Durang again tried his hand writing sitcoms, and wrote one for Fox TV and then one for the WB network.   And he acted in the films Life With Mikey (as Santa Claus), Cowboy Way, Simply Irresistible, and the remake of The Out-Of-Towners.

He also worked with A Chorus Line legend Donna McKechnie on her one-woman show Inside the Music, directed by Thommie Walsh. Durang wrote the “text” for her autobiographical show, helping to shape the evening and working on dramatizing her personal stories. The show has been done around the country. Durang was in residence working on it at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

BETTY'S SUMMER VACATION TO THE PRESENT

In 1999 Durang returned to Playwrights Horizons with his play Betty’s Summer Vacation directed by Nicholas Martin.  This nightmarish satire of the public’s thirst for tabloid gruesomeness was very much a critical success, and won Durang his third playwriting Obie award, along with Obies for Nicholas Martin’s direction, for Thomas Lynch’s settings, and for actress Kristine Nielsen’s tour de force performance as Mrs. Siezmagraff.

In 2001 Betty’s… was presented at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, again directed by Nicholas Martin and featuring Andrea Martin as Mrs. Siezmagraff.

Showtime/Tri-Star produced a movie version of Durang’s play Sister Mary Ignatius… in 2001.  The title was abbreviated to Sister Mary Explains It All, and it starred Diane Keaton, was directed by Marshall Brickman, and produced by Victoria Tennant and Kirk Stambler.

Durang then wrote a teleplay for a proposed trio of pieces on marriage through the decades, also for Showtime.  The other writers were Beth Henley and Diana Son, and Durang’s piece was called Labor Day Weekend.  It’s still under consideration at Showtime, and may sometime be produced.

Durang went to L.A. for several months to be a regular on a sitcom called Kristin, created by John Marcus and starring the talented theatre actress Kristin Chenoweth.  Durang, who has been cast as priests and ministers several times, played the Reverend Thornhill, Kristin’s adviser.  He was in 6 episodes, which aired on NBC in early summer 2001.

In 2002 Durang wrote book and lyrics for a 90 minute musical, Adrift In Macao, with music by Peter Melnick.  It received a sung reading at the York Theatre, and then a production at the New York Stage and Film at Vassar, directed by Sheryl Kaller.  It is under option for off-Broadway for the 2003-04 season.

In 2002 Durang also wrote a crackpot Christmas play called Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.  It was commissioned by the City Theatre in Pittsburgh, and was a big success when produced at that theatre, directed by artistic director Tracy Brigden and starring Kristine Nielsen as the out-of-control Mrs. Cratchit who keeps ruining Scrooge’s story.

Over the years Durang has won many grants and fellowships.  Early in his career, he won a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller, the CBS Playwriting Fellowship, the Lecompte du Nouy Foundation grant, and the Kenyon Festival Theatre Playwriting Prize.  

In 1995 he won the prestigious three-year Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writers Award; as part of his grant, he ran a writing workshop for adult children of alcoholics.   In 2000 he won the Sidney Kingsley Playwriting Award.  In 2001 he won an award in literature from the America Academy of Arts and Letters.  

He has been a member of the Dramatists Guild since 1978, and a member of the Dramatists Guild Council since 1981.  

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