If you have landed on this story in hopes of Christopher Durang explaining it all for you - "it" being his long string of acclaimed plays: "Sister Mary Ignatius," "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," "Betty's Summer Vacation" - then you would be advised to visit the playwright's website,www.christopherdurang.com. Among other treats, it features a photo of Liv Ullmann going bonkers, an image on which one must click in order to delve deeper into the Durang oeuvre.
Here, we will be more concerned with Durang's relationship to Russian literature. Or, at least, that is the direction in which I tended to steer the writer when we spoke the other day. With a title like "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," I was obliged to start with Chekhov.
"I read him in college," Durang explained. "At first, I had trouble following the plays. But my professor, William Alfred, who was a playwright as well as a teacher, was a very good reader, and he read the work aloud with so much feeling that it helped open the door for me to like and understand Chekhov."
Durang said he read the Russian's plays and saw several productions of them when he was in his twenties and early-thirties. "But at that point, I was a young person empathizing with the older characters. Now, I'm the age of the older characters, and I identify with them more. But so many of the characters are very unhappy with where their lives are, and in most ways I am not."
Durang elaborated: "The real Uncle Vanya is jealous of the professor's career and even more jealous of the professor's wife, Yelena. I am not in that same state of distress: I have a long-term relationship, and I got to pursue a life in the theater. Chekhov's Vanya feels he has nothing. I have a lot. Still, in the new play I wanted to put myself in a more Chekhovian place. I asked myself: what if I had always lived in the house I grew up in? What if I had to stay behind, taking care of my parents, while one of my siblings got to gallivant around the world?"
For more of Durang's thoughts on the Russian master, keep an eye out for his article in the imminent issue of the Lincoln Center Theater Review tied to the new play.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.
[Ed. Note: More of Brendan Lemon's interview with Christopher Durang will be posted on lct.org next week.]