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Playwright With A Genius For The Absurd Was 75

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Playwright With A Genius For The Absurd Was 75

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Christopher Durang, one of American’s most acclaimed and accomplished playwrights whose works like Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike were as incisive as they were absurdly comic, died Tuesday night at his home in Pipersville, Pa., in Bucks County. He was 75.

His agent, Patrick Herold, confirmed that Durang died as a result complications of his 2016 diagnosis with logopenic primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a form of Alzheimer’s disease that impedes the ability to process language. He remained out of the public spotlight since his condition was made public in 2022. In February, New York’s Dramatists Guild announced that the playwright would receive its 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award on May 6, placing Durang on a prestigious roster alongside such past awardees as John Guare, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Miller.

Born Christopher Ferdinand Durang on January 2, 1949, Durang soared to fame with his beloved (and controversial) 1980 play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, winning that year’s Obie Award for Best Playwright.

The public breakthrough of Sister Mary Ignatius followed a celebrated student career at the Yale School of Drama, where he began friendships and collaborations with classmates and future theater luminaries Sigourney Weaver, Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein. His first professional production, co-authored with Innaurato, came in 1974: The Idiots Karamazov, starring then-student Meryl Streep, earned a review in the New York Times in which Durang and Innaurato were deemed “Yale’s response to Tom Stoppard and Vladimir Nabokov.”

Other plays soon followed, including, in 1976, the Off Broadway farce Titanic starring Weaver and, as part of the same bill, Das Lusitania Songspiel, co-written by and co-starring Durang and Weaver.

The following year, Durang’s A History of the American Film was presented on Broadway, earning him a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical. In 1979, Durang and Weaver rewrote Das Lusitania Songspiel and presented it at Westside Arts Theatre Off Broadway. The cabaret-style revue, which satirized Brecht and Weill as well as then-current shows including Evita, earned Durang and Weaver Drama Desk nominations.

Durang’s watershed year was 1980, when his one-act play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You opened at the Ensemble Studio Theatre Off Off Broadway, receiving rave reviews and numerous accolades. The following year, the sharply satiric comedy, in which the title character presents a lecture on the basics of Catholicism only to be interrupted by four of her former students, moved to Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

The play was as controversial as it was successful: The talk-show host Phil Donahue presented a full hour of his national show to a discussion of the play. The original Off Broadway engagement, originally starring Elizabeth Franz, ran for more than two years, with replacement stars including Nancy Marchand, Mary Louise Wilson, Kathleen Chalfont, Patricia Gage and Lynn Redgrave.

Durang followed Sister Mary Ignatius in 1981 with the Off Broadway hit Beyond Therapy starring Weaver and Stephen Collins, with direction by Jerry Zaks. A revised version was staged the following year on Broadway in a production starring Dianne Wiest, John Lithgow and newcomer David Hyde Pierce. The comedy, about two New Yorkers who seek to strengthen their relationship with the assistance of their respective psychiatrists, has been staged innumerable times around the world; a widely panned 1987 film version directed (and largely rewritten) by Robert Altman was largely disowned by the playwright, who called the project “a very unhappy experience and outcome.”

The Altman film notwithstanding, the 1980s saw Durang solidify his lofty place in the theatrical pantheon, with such widely staged works as Baby With The Bathwater, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Laughing Wild. Durang continued his winning streak through the 1990s (Sex and Longing, Betty’s Summer Vacation) and into the 21st century (his Miss Witherspoon was a 2006 Pulitzer finalist).

Durang saw what was perhaps his crowning achievement in 2012, with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a modern-day comedy about three adult siblings that borrowed freely (and hilariously) from Chekhov. Following original stagings at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and Off Broadway at at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the play transferred to Broadway in 2013 with a cast that included Weaver, Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen and, in a Tony-nominated star-making performance, Billy Magnussen. The play won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.

In addition to playwriting, Durang was a frequent performer on the cabaret circuit and appeared as an actor in such films as The Secret of My Success (1987), Mr. North (1988), Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989), In The Spirit (1990), HouseSitter (1992) and The Cowboy Way (1994).

In 1993 he performed, along with Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins, Michael Rupert and Rachel York in the popular Off Broadway Sondheim revue Putting It Together.

In a 1986 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by his longtime friend and collaborator Weaver, Durang participated with Weaver in two sketches. In the 1987 TV special Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin starring Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, Durang contributed a sketch titled “The Funeral” that featured Burnett as a grieving widow and Williams as an obnoxious intruder at her husband’s wake. Williams won an Emmy for the special.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

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