“I come from an alcoholic family,” says playwright Christopher Durang. He mentions this casually, throwing it away like a common expression, as if his parents emigrated from Alcoholia and he grew up speaking Alcoholish at home. As if the darkly funny image it conjures—the Cleavers stumbling around a kitchen shit-faced, perhaps—were normal. Similarly, Durang has made a delightful career of turning the familiar strange (and vice versa). His screwball imagination has given us plays like The Marriage of Bette & Boo, Beyond Therapy, and Miss Witherspoon. But on meeting Durang, you’re struck by the difference between his self-effacing, almost koala-like demeanor and the rollicking wit and social satire of those plays, let alone his rather dangerous new one, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them—a comedy about date rape, xenophobia, and torture, no less. In it, a young American woman, Felicity, wakes up married to a man named Zamir, who may be a terrorist. We attacked Durang while he was on rehearsal break at the Public, where Torture has just begun previews, and poured water down his face so that he couldn’t breathe. Just kidding. OK, maybe we did.
Alcoholic family? How does that generate humor?
I went to both Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics, and sometimes people will tell some awful, awful story of the idiocy they’re living through—endless drinking and thinking people will get better, etc.—and if the story goes on too long, sometimes the whole room will suddenly laugh. Not a derisive laugh, more like, Wow, did you hear what you just said? It was so crazy.
Unlike many playwrights, you haven’t totally abandoned the stage to write for film or TV.
I thought it would be fun to write movies that got made, with theater being primary. I had a couple of things made, one I don’t like—the Robert Altman Beyond Therapy—so in a way, it’s made me want to come back to theater more frequently. I’ve had good luck getting my plays on, and [in film and TV] you write this thing and someone else owns it, and then nothing ever happens with it. In a way, I made a mistake in that a lot of the time when I took screenplay jobs, I wrote from the same place as my plays—I expended this creative impulse and then it disappeared into the ether. I’m much happier doing this.
What response do you hope to provoke with all the political content in this play?
When I did Sex and Longing in 1996, people said I was preaching to the converted—everybody who goes to the theater in New York is already liberal, so shut up. I thought, That’s so stupid. Because what am I supposed to do? Book myself magically into the Republican National Convention? Or not talk about it? I’m not expecting to change anybody’s mind in this run. Now it is true, though, that if the play is received at least moderately well, it’ll get printed. I’ve discovered that I’m very popular in high schools and colleges, so it really will filter down.
But what’s the immediate takeaway?
I’m hoping for catharsis based on what we’ve been through. There’s lots in Torture that is a real release about the incredible disagreement in our country and the illogic of what was done. The end of the play is trickier. The right-wing father, Leonard, feels he has to torture Zamir to get information from him. I chose to go into a Pirandellian fantasy—the main character makes everybody back up in time and redo things. In the first eight to 10 years of my writing, my plays tended to end with a certain unresolved [repetitiveness]. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to experience some things that can be changed for the better . . . a sense of hope.