Seattle Opera Pagliacci

A farewell to Christopher Durang

The brilliantly brittle comic author of "Beyond Therapy" and "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," who has died at 75, left a lasting mark on Oregon's theater scene beginning in the 1980s.

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From left: Carol Halstead as Masha, Sharonlee McLean as Sonia, Eden Malyn as Nina, Olivia Negron as Cassandra and Andrew Sellon as Vanya and in Portland Center Stage's 2015 production of Christopher Durang's Chekhov-inspired comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Photo: Patrick Weishampel
From left: Carol Halstead as Masha, Sharonlee McLean as Sonia, Eden Malyn as Nina, Olivia Negron as Cassandra and Andrew Sellon as Vanya in Portland Center Stage’s 2015 production of Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Christopher Durang, the despairingly comic author of such brittle and dankly hilarious plays as Beyond Therapy, Baby with the Bathwater, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, The Idiots Karamazov and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, died April 2 of complications from aphasia, a disease that — extra cruelly in his case, as in his prime he was a master manipulator of words — impedes the ability to process language. The New York Times obituary is here.

Durang was the king of a certain sort of American theatrical hill from the late 1970s through the ’80s and ’90s and beyond, and his influence was both sharp and brilliant in Oregon theater circles. Jeff Brooks, the Broadway actor who was a regular on Portland stages and spent three seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival early in his career, was one of Durang’s favored group of performers for many years, along with the actress Sigourney Weaver and others; he appeared in eight of Durang’s plays, and the playwright wrote the brilliant one-act The Actor’s Nightmare for him.

Durang’s plays popped up frequently on stages in Portland and Ashland over the years, attracting audiences and performers alike with their furtively antic dark humor, especially in the 1980s (including a 1985 Storefront Theatre production of Beyond Therapy that starred Kelly Brooks, Jeff Brooks’ younger sister). “Durang’s has been a wounded world, in which children are gravely injured by Church (Catholic), tradition and their childishly self-absorbed parents,” I wrote of a 1988 production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“He doesn’t hold back,” Portland director Greg Tamblyn once noted about Durang. “Anything you’ve ever felt, he just comes out and says.”

In a review of a 1986 production of Baby with the Bathwater at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, I suggested that Durang was an apt spokesman for his harried times: “Armed with the further psychological disadvantage of a higher education at both Harvard and Yale universities, Durang has emerged as the comic chronicler of a frazzled generation desperately seeking normalcy.”

Darius Pierce and Brooke Totman in a 2022 production of Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild” at 21ten Theatre. Photo: Ted Rooney
Darius Pierce and Brooke Totman in a 2022 production of Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild” at 21ten Theatre. Photo: Ted Rooney

In Portland, Durang’s influence has continued to be felt, including in a 2015 production at Portland Center Stage of his Chekhov-soaked comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and a 2022 revival at 21ten Theatre of his 1987 two-hander Laughing Wild, of which Marty Hughley wrote for ArtsWatch, “At the equally entertaining and unnerving production at 21ten Theatre, you’ll laugh a lot. And you might be tempted to cry while sitting amid the rest of the audience. Such are the undercurrents of tension, melancholy and desperation that drive this peculiar onslaught of madcap humor, like shockwaves deep below the ocean pushing a tsunami.”

But it was in the 1980s that Durang’s lasting reach was perhaps most indelibly felt in Portland, particularly in a pair of matching one-acts at Artists Rep, featuring memorable performances by Vana O’Brien in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Joe Cronin in The Actor’s Nightmare (in the role that Jeff Brooks had originated).

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Of O’Brien and Sister Ignatius I wrote: “The protagonist … (one hesitates to call her the heroine) is a brittle, lay-down-the-law teacher at a parochial elementary school, spreading her peculiar gospel of nattering prejudice, celestial bureaucracy and blood vengeance among the young and unwary. She shudders particularly at the sins of the flesh (as opposed to Milton, who considered them worthy of only a minor Hell) and projects a tyranny of guilt upon her students. ‘You can expect to be in Purgatory for anytime between 300 years and 700 billion years,’ she blithely tells them.”

O’Brien’s performance as Sister Mary “is cold, domineering, appallingly opinionated and hilarious,” the review continued. “She even gives the sister quick moments of gentleness, which she cuts off immediately by going into another of her amazing tirades.”

In The Actor’s Nightmare, I wrote, Cronin “gives a superbly befuddled performance as George Spelvin, that age-old anonymous figure of the stage, caught in a terrible dream. It’s a half-hour to curtain time, and George is expected to take over the role. But he doesn’t know his lines, doesn’t know what the role is, doesn’t even know what play is going on. In fact, he didn’t even know he was an actor: He’d always thought he was an accountant. In a series of wild and hilariously embarrassing moments, he lurches onstage from Private Lives to Hamlet to Godot and several other stops, stumbling desperately for the elusive handle that’ll get him through the situation. … Cronin inhabited George as a potent, touching, and almost painfully funny emotional cocktail of desperation and befuddlement.”

Thank you, Christopher Durang, for all of that.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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