THEATER REVIEW : Durang Explains It All, Cuttingly

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Mrs. Sorken, a culture vulture masquerading as a theater docent, delivers the prologue to Christopher Durang's evening of one-acts--called "Durang Durang," with the playwright's trademark understated annoyance in the face of inexplicable pop culture. She's seen a lot of plays and yet doesn't seem to love the theater. Or rather she says she sometimes prefers Dramamine to drama, two words between which she is determined to find a link.

Mrs. Sorken (Patricia Elliot) hates any play that uses the "f" word and is over four hours. This may be playwright Durang's little stab at playwright Tony Kushner (much of the evening is made up of insider-y theater jokes). In fact, it's hard to tell if Mrs. Sorken is a stand-in for Durang--some of her cracks about the relative intelligence of plants over people sound like the playwright's voice--or if she is an object of condescension to him.

"Durang Durang" is an odd evening of theater about theater that makes you wish this uniquely funny and, in fact, extremely influential American playwright would share less of his views on other people's work and write something more substantially all his own.

The best piece of the evening is the least arch and the only one with a character through whose eyes we are invited to see the world. "Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room" features a playwright named Chris whose stubborn iconoclasm seems strangely familiar. Doggedly folding his laundry, Chris would like the world to just leave him alone.

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He agrees, however, to meet a Hollywood agent for lunch at the Russian Tea Room, where she promptly congratulates him for writing the Craig Lucas play "Prelude to a Kiss" (rather like the real-life moment when TV host Charlie Rose asked Paul Rudnick what it was like to work on Ron Nyswaner's "Philadelphia." Those homosexual writers must all look alike.)

This one-act delivers the playwright's specialty: a scathingly funny, reactive innocent who must deal with the Melissa Stearns of the world, Melissa being a Hollywood agent who would like the playwright to write a screenplay based on one of a series of terrifically stupid ideas. The one she's pushing: A priest and a rabbi fall in love and, "O. Henry style," both get a sex-change operation in secret.

Chris' horror at this woman who urges him to deliver "quality but accessibility" goes unnoticed by her. When she picks up her table-side phone to call Philip Roth at home to answer some inane question, she threatens to engulf all of American culture. She has the money to do it, too--a helicopter waits above the Tea Room to take Melissa to her Upper West Side meeting with Nora Ephron.

Just where Durang fits in on the rung of culture is something he seems to be still figuring out, 15 years after his breakthrough piece, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You." Much of the evening is devoted to his recasting of plays that have managed, in commercial and non-commercial ways, to be celebrated by a culture whose values seem to constantly confound him.

In "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," Durang re-imagines "The Glass Menagerie" as a place where characters could freely address the way a contemporary audience might view the now-familiar peculiarities of the Wingfield (or Wingvalley, as Durang calls them) family. Laura becomes Lawrence (the very funny Keith Reddin), a pathologically shy collector of glass cocktail stirrers ("I call this one blue because . . . it's blue") whose brother Tom brings home a female caller, who turns out to be a lesbian with a hearing problem.

This joke, like several others in the evening, is repeated a lot and sometimes pointlessly throughout the intermittently amusing one-act. The second piece, a Sam Shepard parody called "A Stye of the Eye," is similarly repetitive and seems to congratulate the audience for having seen and disliked "A Lie of the Mind" and for having read perhaps just enough about Shepard to know that he often divides two aspects of one man into two different characters and has a fondness for symbols (here represented with cymbals, many times).

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The only time that "Durang Durang" soars is a moment late in the evening, when a priest and a rabbi disco dance together in the screenplay from hell of Chris' imagination. This is a moment that belongs purely to the playwright's theatrical inventiveness and is not weighed down by his debt to or suspicion of other playwrights' works.

Walter Bobbie's overstated direction, in which all the jokes seem to be underlined twice, does not help. True to its title, "Durang Durang" shows two sides of a playwright whose voice has a permanent place in American drama. There's Durang the sharp-tongued, ostensibly confused observer of his time, and Durang the very bright Harvard student who needs to move once and for all beyond college parody, perhaps beyond being the consummate outsider. He has created a play in which for a moment you can hear that voice, but not for long enough that anyone could ever do a parody of Chris Durang.

* "Durang Durang," Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage II. (212) 581-1212. $30.

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