[Ed. Note: In a previous blog entry, Brendan Lemon talked to Christopher Durang about Chekhov, the literary inspiration for his new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Here Durang talks about the actors in the LCT production.]
Christopher Durang lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where his new play is set. When I asked him about the location, he replied: "My partner, John Augustine, and I moved there in 1996. For a while, I kept a sublet in New York. Now, Bucks County is my only residence, and I commute into the city when I need to." I pointed out that Bucks County has a long history of housing theatrical VIPs: Oscar Hammerstein II, for example, who had a home in Doylestown. Durang replied that, as it happens, he often goes there to shop, and mentioned that in Hammerstein's era there had also been Moss Hart, Kitty Carlisle, and SJ Perelman nearby.
Durang's circle of luminaries, artistically if not geographically, includes Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen, both part of his new work's six-actor ensemble. "I did absolutely have both of them in mind when I wrote the play," Durang revealed, adding: "For most of my career, I have not written with specific actors in mind. When I did, early on, it seemed that either my directors didn't want those people or that those actors weren't available."
Luckily, Durang explained, both Weaver and Nielsen were available this time. He outlined his history with Weaver, of which I can, regrettably owing to the confines of a blog entry, convey only a few fast facts: their meeting at the Yale School of Drama, in 1971; their collaboration on such cabaret delights as Better Dead Than Sorry, in which Durang, himself an excellent actor, also performed, and Das Lusitania Songspiel, a Brecht/Weill send-up that was performed professionally in New York, in 1980; and an early children's show in which Weaver played an evil baroness and Durang her masochistic troll.
As for Masha, Weaver's current assignment, in Vanya, Durang confessed that she's "a hodgepodge of Chekhov characters, as much like Madame Arkadina, in The Seagull, as anything in Three Sisters." Masha, in other words, is a mash-up.
As for Nielsen, she was a Yale Drama classmate of Jim Simpson, Weaver's husband, and she appeared in The Doctor Will See You Now, which Durang wrote for an evening of political sketches done by The Acting Company.
"But Kristine and I only really bonded," Durang said, "when we both performed in a Lincoln Center Theater production of Ubu, around 1988." He added: "The next thing that implanted her in my mind was something at the Public Theater called Dog Opera, a wonderful play by Constance Congdon. Kristine made me laugh so much in that show that I thought, She must be in a play of mine sometime."
And so she has been. Durang's new play marks the fifth time she has originated one of his roles. At this point, could she safely be called his muse? "Muse would not be a wrong thought," the playwright replied. He added: "Kristine has this extraordinary ability to make people laugh, but she has so many different colors to her. She couldn't get the huge laughs if she didn't know how to ground her characterizations in reality."
Before winding down our conversation, Durang told me that he and David Hyde Pierce, the third well-known performer in Vanya, also have a connection. "Just after graduating from Yale College, David got his Equity card by appearing in a production of my play Beyond Therapy, on Broadway in 1982."
And where did Durang get his own Equity card? In a production of The Idiots Karamazov, a play with music he wrote with Albert Innaurato while they were both at Yale: its student production was so successful that it was tapped for a professional engagement at Yale Rep. The show featured Meryl Streep as that doyenne of Russian-literature translation, Constance Garnett.
"As you can imagine from the title," Durang said, "that play was heavily indebted to Dostoevsky. But there was a lot of Chekhov around the edges."
"The first song in the show is called: 'We Gotta Get To Moscow.'"
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.