(Schulman’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 4/15/2024; Photograph by Robert Wright / Redux.)

The Tony-winning playwright’s dark, antic satire were many people’s gateway to theatre.  I was one of those people.

It’s one thing to make nuns funny. It’s another to have a nun cheerily explain the difference between mortal and venial sin, unveil her list of who’s slated for Hell (Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mick Jagger), brandish a gun and shoot two people dead (“I think Christ will allow me this little dispensation from the letter of the law, but I’ll go to confession later today, just to be sure”), and take a bow. But that, roughly, is the plot of Christopher Durang’s short, nutty, blasphemous play “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” which materialized Off Off Broadway in 1979 and became his breakout hit. The Catholic League was not amused.Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Durang’s plays—madcap, savage, disturbed—mix absurdism and melancholy, refracting the funny terror of existence. As a lapsed Catholic who was educated by Benedictine monks, he knew that life is full of platitudes tested by the cruel, crazed world. There was real damage in his work, which melded genre parodies (Beckett, sitcoms, Busby Berkeley) with a kooky stream-of-consciousness logic that lifted his characters aloft like helium. “[P]art of the randomness of things is that there is no one to blame,” one of Sister Mary’s traumatized former students says. “But basically I think everything is your fault, Sister.”

For the young and stagestruck, Durang was a gateway drug to dark comedy, and often to theatre itself. After he died, this month, at the age of seventy-five, my social-media feeds brimmed with tributes, from people who had acted in “The Actor’s Nightmare” in high school or directed “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” in college or done a “Sister Mary Ignatius” monologue in Speech and Debate. (The Catholic League is still not amused.) Because his plays had one foot in “Saturday Night Live” and another in Ionesco, he was accessible to young people who loved getting laughs, while offering something weirder and harder-edged than they might have encountered elsewhere. I was one of those people. The first time I saw his work, I was fourteen, and my older cousin was directing his play “Beyond Therapy,” a farce about shrinks, at Wesleyan. Not long after, my drama teacher assigned me a monologue from “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” Durang’s satire of “The Glass Menagerie.” I hadn’t read “The Glass Menagerie,” but the speech—a goofy, heartfelt sendup of Tom’s “I didn’t go to the moon” soliloquy—beckoned me into a world of winking theatrical references. Durang became one of my comedy heroes, alongside such stage absurdists as Tom Stoppard and John Guare.

My senior year of high school, in 1999, I directed my friends in Durang’s play “Baby with the Bathwater,” in which two parents, Helen and John, cooing over a bassinet, desperately try not to fuck up their newborn child—and fail utterly. Helen chides John for calling the baby “Daddy’s little baked potato,” lest the baby confuse itself with food. John dulls himself with quaaludes and sleeps with the nanny. In Act II, the child, now a young man named Daisy—his parents took a guess at his gender and guessed wrong—has grown into a dysfunctional, self-destructive mess, too sex-addicted and depressed to finish a college paper. “I didn’t ask to be brought into the world,” he rants to a psychiatrist. “If they didn’t know how to raise a child, they should have gotten a dog; or a kitten—they’re more independent—or a gerbil! But left me unborn.” The gerbil is funny; the pain is real.

That same year, I went to see Durang’s newest work, “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” at Playwrights Horizons. The play is set at a beach house inhabited by a group of wacky vacationers. A mysterious laugh track hovers around them, as if they’re characters in a sitcom, though the events soon descend into violent mayhem: rape, dismemberment, murder. All of a sudden, three laughing spectators burst through the ceiling, demanding entertainment. “Make us laugh,” they bellow in unison. “Gross us out. Tell us the latest news of Gwyneth Paltrow. Show us naked pictures of Brad Pitt!” After the voices call for a Court TV-style trial, the daffy matron Mrs. Siezmagraff enacts an entire courtroom scene, playing multiple characters, including a nonexistent Irish housekeeper. It was a tour de force for the actress Kristine Nielsen, and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

In college, I directed my own production of “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” and somehow got hold of Durang’s e-mail so I could invite him. A few days later, he responded, apologizing that he couldn’t make it. “I hope the play has gone well, and has stimulated but not horrified the audience—which is part of the balancing act needed, I guess,” he wrote. Not knowing the first thing about literary rights, I proudly told him that we’d updated some of the celebrity references, subbing in Justin Timberlake for Tom Cruise. (Note to student directors: don’t do this!) “I have to show my age and say I didn’t know who Justin Timberlake was,” Durang graciously replied. “I hope Gwyneth Paltrow still seemed germane; the sound of her name is amusing to say in unison.” At the time, Durang was the co-chair (with Marsha Norman) of Juilliard’s playwriting program, where he would shepherd generations of talents, including Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews”) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“Appropriate”). But I was starstruck to have my own little encounter with the master.

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