Christopher Durang was the rare great playwright who took comedy seriously

Christopher Durang was produced more off-Broadway than on during his some 40-year playwriting career, but he did manage the feat of winning the 2013 Tony Award for best play, for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — in a rare instance when the prize went to a comedy.

Not a drama with flashes of humor or the occasional funny line, mind you, but a full-on comedy, packed with zingers and slapstick (enter Snow White). This despite the fact that comedy, Neil Simon notwithstanding, is not taken seriously by those who dole out awards. Durang, who died Tuesday at 75, did take it seriously as a genre that was great in and of itself, but also as one that allowed him to sneak in serious ideas and, often, an undercurrent of melancholy.

“Vanya and Sonia” was uproarious, but some characters were plagued by malaise, others by sheer stupidity, and the show peaks with an epic monologue in which the dyspeptic Vanya rails against the modern world, yet somehow doesn’t come across as Grampa Simpson yelling at a cloud. It was pure Durang, and that approach was already all in the first play by him that I ever saw, in the 1990s. It was “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” a one-act parody of “The Glass Menagerie” that replaces Tennessee Williams’s frail Laura with the wildly sensitive, hypochondriacal Lawrence. He collects cocktail stirrers instead of animal figurines, and gives them names. (“I call this one Henry Kissinger, because he wears glasses and it’s made of glass.”) The mix of references, affection and wicked satire — and what Williams fan does not also enjoy Williams spoofs? — was like candy laced with arsenic.

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When David Hyde Pierce originated the role of Vanya, he said that Durang “has always been so masterful at incorporating pop and contemporary references into his plays. A lot of times when writers do that, it feels cheap, or it feels like an easy laugh. He always has such a keen ear. And a sophisticated sense of what’s going on.”

Yes, all those references do pepper Durang’s work, seasoning without overwhelming the dishes. But there was so much more to it. Seeing more Durang over the years made me realize how much “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” that seemingly tossed-off bonbon, was ur-Durang. The way he handled existential discomfort, depression (from which he suffered), and the questioning of faith and morality was masterful, and often masterfully funny. (In 1986, he even turned up as the Church Lady’s guest/antagonist on “Saturday Night Live.”)

I’m not all that keen on Durang’s early well-known shows, such as his breakthrough, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” (1979), or “Beyond Therapy” (1981), which was, unfortunately, immortalized by Robert Altman in a bad movie from 1987. While some playwrights hit the bull’s eye in their youth, then try to find the target again as the years and decades mercilessly pass, Durang actually improved with age: His plays got looser, more radical and angry as he went on, perhaps because our world just got more absurd in its madness — or mad in its absurdity.

Durang’s 1999 play, “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” made funny hay of what he called “the ‘tabloid-ization’ of American culture,” turning the country’s collective mental and moral apocalypse into a sitcom with a laugh track. He was even more pointed 10 years later, in “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” in which a young woman starts suspecting that her new husband might be a terrorist. (In a very Durang-ian touch, they were married by “this minister guy who also makes porno.”)

The show considered the paranoia and the obsession with categorizing people that were eating up the country during the war on terror, using a mix of zaniness and surrealism exemplified by the presence in the Public Theater cast of Durang regular Kristine Nielsen — whose unique combination of daffiness and pathos captures so much of his sensibility.

At one point, Nielsen’s character says: “I don’t really know what normal is. That’s one of the reasons I go to the theater. To learn that.”

Oh, how we are going to miss Durang’s version of normality.

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