Christopher Durang and the Court of Cannibals

Posted: March 31, 2014 in Braak, reviews, theater
Tags: , , , ,

Christopher Durang – America’s most beloved author of community theater audition monologues – has a new play called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.  In 2013 it won the Tony Award for Outstanding New Play.  It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Production, the Drama League Award for Best Production of a Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, the Outer Circle Critics Award for Best Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike prominently features a Magical Negro housekeeper who has the power of Voodoo.

If, after reading that, you think to yourself, “That’s enough.  This is the 21st century and I have no interest in racial caricatures of any kind.  Nothing in this play could possibly make up for this conspicuous, shameful, and easily avoidable failure; I am happy to condemn this play to company with the rest of the detritus of civilization left behind as humanity continues on its long moral arc, without hearing another word about it,” well, then, I agree with you.  You can ignore this play for the rest of your life, and not be one degree the worse for it; go forth, and be not bothered by Christopher Durang.

In criticism, though, as in life, it is important to be thorough.

The most peculiar thing about Christopher Durang’s Magical Negro Housekeeper is that it’s not like Vanya is otherwise a tightly-written, intricately intertwined piece, where the removal of any element would require enormous rewrites.  If Durang had looked back at his play and said, “Oh, I accidentally put in this racist caricature, but I’d have to rewrite the whole thing in order to take it out,” we might charitably say that he was less awful than he was lazy.

But the character isn’t integral to anything.  She doesn’t have any bearing on the plot (such as it is), she doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the themes of the play (such as they are); she contributes nothing.  It’s as though Christopher Durang wrote a play in which not much of anything happens, and not much of anything mattered, and then decided that the solution to spicing it up was, “I know!  More racial caricatures!”

The housekeeper’s name is Cassandra, and she has the magical power to predict the future, but no one believes her predictions.  Just like the Greek character Cassandra, do you get it?  Her name was also Cassandra.  They have the same name, and key elements of their characters are also the same!  Get it?

Just in case you don’t, here’s how Durang slyly brings his audience up to speed on Greek mythology:

VANYA: I think you take your name too seriously.

CASSANDRA:  My name?  What do you mean?

VANYA:  You know. Greek mythology.  Apollo gave Cassandra second sight, but then cursed her so no one ever believed her.

Never a more deft hand with exposition.   The main characters –  three siblings Vanya and Sonia and Masha – are named after characters from Chekhov.  In case you didn’t recognize them right away, here’s how Durang cleverly catches you up:

VANYA:  It’s been our cross to bear that our parents gave us names from Chekhov plays.  The other children made fun of us with our mysterious names.  Such was the burden of having two professor parents…

Of course, leaden, clumsy exposition is a hallmark of Chekhov, and Durang has said (both in the program notes to the production I saw, and in the introduction to my copy of the script) that he’s taken the themes of Chekhov and put them “in a comic blender.”  “Comic” might be an exaggeration, but “blender” sounds about right – if you like your Chekhovian themes chopped up and pureed into an undifferentiated paste, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a good choice.  What’s strange is that Durang would leave out the sense of incipient doom, the existential ache in the face of a disinterested universe, but keep the terrible exposition.  Durang’s comic blender takes the pits and the stems from Chekhov, but leaves behind the fruit.

Ben Brantley in his New York Times review describes the story of Vanya as “made up of scattered bits of Chekhov run through a contemporary plot processor” – this is, through some critical alchemy, somehow expressed as a positive, as though we’re all meant to laugh uproariously every time someone mentions something that we’ve heard of.  Brantley’s two page review doesn’t mention the ragged, cackhanded writing, the stumbling semblance of jokes.

Here, Sonia has just thrown a coffee cup against the wall, enraged that her morning routine is slightly different than usual:

VANYA:  What is the matter with you???

SONIA:  Do I have to do everything?

VANYA:  But you offered to take it.  Are you bipolar now?

SONIA:  Yes!

VANYA:  Some people claim antidepressants help them.

SONIA:  If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.

This goes on.  In addition to being little more than the same “oh isn’t it sad that psychology is making us so much less quirky” schitck that Durang has been mining since at least Beyond Therapy, this is a textbook example of the kind of joke that doesn’t go anywhere:  the playwright, noticing that his play is boring, has a character do something unexpected; realizing that “unexpected” isn’t the same thing as “a joke”, he has the characters react to each other in the hopes that they’ll eventually squeeze out a laugh.

The entire play is like this, the exact simulacrum of a freshman English major’s first attempt at a play after reading The Seagull, but Christopher Durang isn’t a freshman English major.  Christopher Durang is half of the playwriting faculty at one of the most prestigious theater conservatories in the world.  Christopher Durang has been writing plays for more than thirty years.

That history proves necessary; while Durang has chewed up “plot” and “theme” from Chekhov, the characters that he regurgitates are mostly variations on his own old standbys.  You’ll probably recognize Vain Woman Who is a Wretched Harridan, Frumpy Woman Paralyzed by Anxiety About Her Life Choices, and Shy Gay Man Whose Manic Rant Provides the Climax of the Play.  Cassandra, the Magical Negro Housekeeper Who Practices Voodoo, is clearly meant to be borrowed from Chekhov directly – a counterpart to Firs (from The Cherry Orchard) or Anfisa (from The Three Sisters) (of course enriched — and this bears repeating, to no conceivable purpose — with the magical power of voodoo) – and this exposes a fairly serious flaw in Durang’s “plot blender” approach to playwriting:  it turns out that if you take the character of a ninety-year old servant in the Russian countryside who remembers and laments the emancipation of the serfs, and then have that role filled by a young black woman in the 21st century, you don’t get the same effect.

It’s the two young people who are most telling, I think (the two young people who aren’t black, obviously, and so don’t have to be housekeepers or practice voodoo).  Spike (older sister Masha’s young new boyfriend) and his young female counterpart in the play, Nina (provided predictably so that poor old Masha would have someone to feel jealous of, as all women in their fifties inevitably do) are of course vapid morons – everyone in the world of Christopher Durang is a vapid moron.  But young people come essentially in two varieties:  those who are attentive to the needs of their elders, and who like old, classical things.  They listen to the Beatles (of course it’s the Beatles, that great cultural gift that Durang’s generation will never stop congratulating themselves for giving us) and enjoy films by Ingmar Bergman. (This is Nina.)

Those young people who are not attentive to the elderly are, of course, self-absorbed narcissists who can’t stop texting.  (This is Spike.)

The gooey, half-digested heart of this regurgitated wad of cud is really just old people being afraid of the change represented by Kids Today and their weird haircuts, their incomprehensible music, their bad manners.  After Spike is caught texting in the middle of an impromptu reading of Vanya’s new play (we’ve had text messaging for twenty years; thank god some bold playwright has finally – finally! – taken a stand against it), Vanya launches into his epic, climactic monologue.  It’s another rambling, freshman-year bit of writing, in which Vanya goes on at length about how in the old days people licked stamps and dialed phone numbers.  He lists no fewer than ten television shows that people watched in the old days.

At first, I thought his preoccupation with postage stamps had to do with the dearth of mail in the face of email, but it turns out Durang’s problem goes even farther back:

VANYA:  WE USED TO LICK POSTAGE STAMPS BACK THEN.  Obviously you’ve never heard of that.  They didn’t just peel off ready-made with sticky stuff on the back.

Durang’s rejection of modernity includes even 21st century postage-stamp-adhesive.  Who knows if he’s even heard of email.

The moral of Vanya’s emotional explosion is that Masha dumps her young boyfriend and decides not to sell their house, removing the only piece of dramatic conflict ever introduced in the entire two hours’ worth of theater.  The play is done.  Unlike Chekhov, who acknowledged that change was inevitable, and that a fear of change would lead only to a life of dissatisfaction and misery, Durang seems perfectly happy to let everyone end the play where they started.  Change is averted, Vanya and Sonia remain in their house (Vanya has talked about getting a job, and Sonia might have a date, but these aren’t really the same caliber as, say, the specter of a Bolshevik revolution that’s going to wipe out the entire bourgeois middle-class), Masha goes back to making movies.

The three siblings listen to the Beatles on Nina’s iPod.

I just want to reiterate that this play, with its go-nowhere jokes, its leaden exposition, its racist caricatures, this play that is a self-confessed lump of vomit composed of half-eaten, better plays, this play that climaxes with five minutes of an old man yelling at a cloud, won the Tony Award for Outstanding New Play.  It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Production, the Drama League Award for Best Production of a Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, the Outer Circle Critics Award for Best Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play.  It, along with Venus in Fur (by David Ives, America’s other favorite author of community theater audition monologues), is one of the most-produced non-musical plays in the country right now.  This play is a pile of hot garbage, and the worst that reviewers in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Associated Press, et al have had to say about it is “Certain bits go on too long and the exposition could be lightened” (that’s Charles McNulty at the LA Times, in case you’re wondering).

Reading those reviews, and looking at Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’s litany of accolades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire modern theater industry is really just a conspiracy to keep Christopher Durang at the top of the list of Great American Comic Playwrights.

Though that’s maybe not too far off.  Christopher Durang was born in 1949, right at the vanguard of the Baby Boom generation – a generation which, it’s now becoming clear, having squandered the inheritance left to it by its forbears and finding its hunger to consume yet unsated, turned its teeth on the generations that came after.  In that sense, Durang really is the voice of his generation.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike really is the peak of Boomer theater:  a cultural legacy cannibalized to the purpose of reflecting and validating its audience’s insipid anxieties, all the while projecting its own nihilistic self-absorption onto a generation that it doesn’t come within a long mile of comprehending.

So, on second thought:  good work, Durang.  You’re exactly what your cohort expects of you.

Maybe rethink that Magical Negro housekeeper, though.

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