NEW YORK — A few years ago, playwright Christopher Durang began wondering "what if" a bunch of Anton Chekhov's characters lived in Bucks County, Penn., as he did. And what if two of the older ones lived in a nice stone farmhouse like his for not just in midlife, as he does, but for their entire lives?
"Even when I studied Chekhov's plays in college, I felt empathy for his older characters, often regretful and unhappy," says Durang. "Now that I'm older, I wanted to do something triggered by Chekhov but put in the present day. My farm house, which is on a little hill, made me think of a lot of the sets I've seen in 'The Seagull.'"
The result of such musing is "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for best play, it opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Feb. 9 with much of its Broadway cast, considerable poignancy and plenty of Durang's comic madness.
After four decades of delivering his unique blend of anger, humor and despair to relatively limited audiences, the man who gave us such unsettling fare as "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" and "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" has widened his reach.
"When I was younger, my plays were still comedies, but they had dark, nihilistic endings," says 65-year-old Durang, comfortably ensconced in a Lincoln Center Theater boardroom. "People were repeating the same things they'd been doing or something worse had happened. I found I now had less interest in seeing plays or movies that were despairing and sad. I didn't want the audience or myself to go home depressed."
Nobody should head home in despair after a few hours with this Vanya and friends. Mixing and matching characters and themes plucked from several Chekhov plays, Durang plops middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia in Bucks County, then disrupts their quiet lives with visits from their self-absorbed, movie-star sister Masha, her rarely dressed boy toy Spike, an ingénue named Nina and a clairvoyant cleaning lady named Cassandra.
Originally commissioned by Princeton's McCarter Theatre, the play moved to Lincoln Center Theater and later to Broadway. David Hyde Pierce, who played mournful patriarch Vanya in all those incarnations, here directs a cast including Christine Ebersole (Masha) and Mark Blum (Vanya) as well as returning actors Kristine Nielsen (Sonia) and Shalita Grant (Cassandra), who, like Hyde Pierce, were among the show's five Tony nominees from the Broadway production.
"Chris always has his finger on the pulse of what is true, and all his plays resonate with the human condition," observes actress Ebersole, a two-time Tony winner who had been in two earlier Durang plays in Los Angeles. "This play is ... his most fully realized in terms of its universal appeal. He's like a lotus flower — he just keeps unfolding."
Or, as Durang put it on receiving his Tony last June," it's been a long road." Raised in suburban New Jersey by an architect father and theater-loving mother who read him plays, Durang was 8 when he wrote his first play, a two-pager based on "I Love Lucy."
At 13, he co-wrote his first musical. After various Catholic schools, he headed for Harvard, where, he summarizes, "I was depressed, went to the mental health service, saw somebody good, got better and got into Yale Drama School."
At Yale, he wrote plays and also acted with such classmates as Sigourney Weaver, who has since appeared in several of his plays (and originated the part of Masha on Broadway). A regular at the Yale Cabaret, he wrote such things as "Better Dead Than Sorry" and, with classmate Wendy Wasserstein, co-wrote "When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth."
Yale also spawned an earlier Russian mash-up called "The Idiots Karamazov," co-written with classmate Albert Innaurato, which featured an elderly, confused translator of Russian literature played by classmate Meryl Streep in a gray wig and oversize nose. "It was a big hit at school, and Robert Brustein [then dean of the Yale School of Drama] put it on at Yale Repertory Theatre," recalls the youthful-looking Durang, who is surprisingly soft-spoken and easygoing in person. "It was like winning the lottery."
Educator and critic Brustein remembers well both Durang and "The Idiots Karamazov." "From the moment I saw that Yale Drama School production, I knew that we had a genuine artist in our midst," says Brustein. "Chris had a way of finding the perfect collaborators, not only Meryl and Albert but Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen and Wendy Wasserstein, among others. He creates ideal repertory companies for his particular brand of poisonous innocence."
Targeting such things as family, government and church, Durang has turned out such plays as his 1981, Obie Award-winning "Sister Mary Ignatius," with its hilarious, Bible-spouting, gun-toting nun; "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," an absurdist look at his parents' difficult marriage; and in 2009, "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them."
The Taper was one of three regional theaters to premiere, in 1977, Durang's "A History of the American Film," a play with music that went on to Broadway the next year and won him a Tony nomination.
Then an actor, Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks appeared in some productions of "American Film." A few years later, Zaks had started directing and says he persuaded Durang to let him direct "Sister Mary Ignatius," first as a one-act, then later off-Broadway.
"Nobody has been more important in my professional life than Chris Durang," says Zaks. "'Sister Mary' ran for several years and was done all over the country. All of a sudden, I had credibility as a director."
Zaks, who went on to direct three more of Durang's early plays, says, "if you read a page of one of his scripts, you're able to identify it as a Durang play. There's that juxtaposition of hysterically funny and poignancy right next-door to each other."
Or as Pierce observes, "Chris hears things differently than the rest of us. He's like some sort of woodland creature with a heightened sense of hearing and sight. He picks up on little nuances of our language and culture that may be bobbling around in our subconscious, but we might not notice."
Durang has also written TV sitcoms, specials and teleplays over the years, but he is probably more familiar to Hollywood as an actor than as a writer. He has appeared in several films since the mid-'80s, was a regular on Kristin Chenoweth's sitcom "Kristin" in 2001, and has acted in his own plays here as well as in New York.
It is not, however, so easy to perform Durang's plays, adds Pierce. "One of the challenges of Chris' plays is, because they're so funny and the situations are so absurd, it can be tempting to play the characters as caricatures. But they aren't caricatures. They are real human beings, and the actors who are best at playing Durang are the ones who are best at allowing the humanity in those voices to come through."
Few Durang interpreters rival Nielsen, performing here in her fifth Durang play. Nielsen refers to Sonia as "a wonderful gift I got from a special playwright" and calls "Vanya and Sonia" "a play of family, middle age and trying to find hope in the world. There's still some rage, with Vanya's rant and his sisters' resentments, but in general, it has so much hope in it. I love the angry man, but I also love this new place he's in."
Durang has spent nearly two decades in Bucks County with his partner of 25 years, writer-actor John Augustine." "I lived in New York for 22 years, and I loved it, but it was very tense," says Durang. "I started to want trees and a little more quiet."
Perhaps his own ease encouraged the hopefulness he parcels out more freely now to his characters.When sister Masha goes off to a costume party glamorously dressed as Snow White, sad sack Sonia could have chosen to stay home or to dress as a dwarf like her brother Vanya, but she doesn't. She acquires her own glamorous costume, assumes the role of Maggie Smith en route to the Oscars, and, says Durang, "that choice changed her life."
Vanya, Sonia and company in many ways changed Durang's own life. He had three earlier Broadway runs, but they didn't run long and got mixed reviews. Rather, his plays have been produced primarily off-Broadway or in regional theaters.
"I had kind of given up ever winning a Tony, not in bitterness, but thinking that isn't going to happen to me," says the playwright. "I was thrilled when I was nominated. I have been around a long time, and I really felt from people, 'Oh, it's his turn.' I felt lots of people were happy for me, and that was nice. There have been ups and downs, but I got to pursue theater, and I think I've had a rather lucky life. I hope I won't get punished for saying that."