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2013
SUNDAY, JUNE 9, 2013
Live at Radio City Music Hall

Vanya Playwright Christopher Durang on Making Stage Magic With Three of His Closest Friends

Vanya Playwright Christopher Durang on Making Stage Magic With Three of His Closest Friends
Christopher Durang
'It’s a lovely thing to know people over time and to be lucky enough to work together over and over again.'

About the author:
It’s been a special season for Christopher Durang, whose latest comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, has already won Best Play honors from the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics’ Circle and is nominated for six 2013 Tony Awards. Even sweeter: the fact that Durang is sharing the experience of a hit Broadway play with three of his closest friends, Sigourney Weaver and fellow Tony nominees Kristine Nielsen and director Nicholas Martin. In this essay for Broadway.com, the always modest playwright traces his long and happy history with Weaver, Nielsen and Martin and celebrates the “family feeling” of the theater.

When I acted in plays in high school, one of the things I loved about doing a show with other people is that you kind of created a family. You saw each other each day at rehearsal, or during the performances (which in high school were pretty short, of course)—but it mostly made for friendships.

In professional theater, that “creating a family” thing still happens. Sometimes it makes for intense friendships, but even if the friendship is more mild, you still feel a bond just being in the show. These friendships sometimes last beyond the show; other times your paths go different ways, or by chance you’re just never in a show together again, etc. etc.

But with three people in my play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike I have had the pleasure of that long-time friendship over years and over multiple times working together. I’m speaking of director Nicholas (Nicky) Martin and actresses Kristine Nielsen and Sigourney Weaver.

I met Sigourney in 1971 at the Yale School of Drama. I met Kristine Nielsen casually through Sigourney and her husband Jim Simpson. But we were in a play together in 1988 and became fast friends. Nicky I had met over the years, but it was in 1999 when he directed my play Betty’s Summer Vacation that we became friends, and I joined the “I Love Nicky” fan club (whose unofficial co-presidents are Victor Garber and Debra Monk).

To be honest, two well known directors turned down Betty’s Summer Vacation because they found it too dark. Reading the play, Nicky just laughed. There’s a lot of laughter in his rehearsal rooms, and he also knows how to get the right set designer, costume designer and cast… I find we almost always agree.

Kristine Nielsen played Mrs. Siezmagraff in Betty’s and it was one of the funniest performances I have ever seen in my life. The role is like a toxic Auntie Mame— she’s charismatic and she’s happy as can be, and she has no boundaries and no sense of the chaos she is causing. But she just loves herself, and so does the audience.

Kristine and I had met, as I said earlier, when we had supporting roles in an unlucky production of Ubu. And later I saw her in Constance Congdon’s funny/touching play Dog Opera at the Public, and I was just wowed. She was so hilarious in a very particular-to-her way. I originally thought of Mrs. Siezmagraff as 20 years older than Kristine was, but then I thought, “Oh nonsense, it’s hardly a realistic play, we’ll just make her daughter 20 instead of 30.” I told Nicky I wanted her for the role, and it was easy: “Yes!” he said. “I love her.” I told you Nicky and I agree a lot.

Nicky, Kristine and I went to the Obies that year—and all three of us won, for directing, acting, and playwriting. It was such a happy moment to be recognized jointly, embracing how much we loved working together.

Nicky then directed me and Debra Monk in a revival of my play Laughing Wild, and I enjoyed being an actor following his guidance; and then he did a stunning, funny production of my Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them with a wonderful cast led by Laura Benanti, and with (surprise!) Kristine Nielsen playing the opposite of Mrs. Siezmagraff—she played the sweet mother who denied everything that was bothering her except for one fabulous verbal explosion where she let loose for once with her repressed anger at her bullying husband.

I do not have an accurate count of how many plays of mine Sigourney has been in. Or plays that she and I acted in together, especially when we were at Yale School of Drama and later when we did our crackpot Brecht-Weill cabaret called Das Lusitania Songspiel. I was also the only playwright at Yale who took the actors’ singing class (taught by the delightful Elizabeth Parrish), and Sigourney and I sometimes did duets, or otherwise watched each other’s songs from the audience, grinning away and always finding each other funny.

I do have a clear memory of the first play of mine Sigourney was in—it was at the Yale Cabaret. I had written a dark 50-minute musical called Better Dead Than Sorry. It was about a four person “musical comedy family,” the so-called Barrymores of musical theater. And Darryl and Carol were married, and Kenny and Jenny were Darryl’s brother and sister. In the movies, Sigourney has played strong heroines much of the time, but in my early work, she played the more fragile characters. And she played Jenny who was a nervous wreck, and always having breakdowns. There were lots of songs, and Sigourney’s big number was the title song, “Better Dead Than Sorry,” sung while receiving shock treatments.

I’m sure that sounds very dark, and it was dark, except the play was absurdist, and Sigourney was kind of spacey/sweet in her character. The song was written to be interrupted by the sounds of shock treatments —in the script it said something like ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. We had a sound effect for that, but Sigourney didn’t choose to flail around or show horrible pain or scream. Instead when these sounds occurred, she stopped singing, tilted her head slightly and just widened her eyes as if something odd and slightly upsetting had happened. It was kind of like Alice in Wonderland getting a shock treatment. It was a very surprising and understated way to do it—I found it hilarious, and that was the beginning of our friendship and my enormous admiration for her talent.

Oh, and about the theater as family feeling—Sigourney and I did that first show two times a night for Thursday through Saturday (I played her brother Darryl, who worried about her). And I remember after the first night went very well and our nerves were behind us, the second night we were all happy and excited, and there was music in the green room between shows, and she and I started to do a playful, fun dance together. I am shy about dancing, but I got into it.

So…it’s a lovely thing to know people over time and to be lucky enough to work together over and over again.