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Christopher Durang Explains It All


Christopher Durang has a lot on his mind. The gay playwright was so put off by the George W. Bush administration that his frustration over the Iraq war spilled onto the stage, courtesy of the provocative satire Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. And if bringing the production to Los Angeles weren't already enough, Durang also has been tasked with turning two one-man shows into one raucous night of musical theater starring Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna in All About Me.

With Torture making its West Coast debut (with Alec Mapa and Nicholas Brendon) January 30 at the Stella Adler Theatre in Los Angeles and All About Me raising its curtain in March at Henry Miller's Theatre in New York, caught up with Durang to discuss both productions, working with a young Meryl Streep, and the bid for marriage equality. What inspired you to write Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them?
Christopher Durang: I was living through the Bush-Cheney years and found them traumatizing. You know, invading a country that didn't attack us, all the sort of miscommunication with pretending [Iraqis] were involved with 9/11 or looking for slight hints that maybe they were, all that kind of stuff. The secrecy just drove me crazy. So they say to write about what you know or what you feel passionate about, and for much of the time I spoke about the issues more directly, rather than fictionally with my plays. But by the time I started to write this, Obama wasn't yet on the horizon -- and I'm enough of a progressive that I'm having some difficulties about him too, but I still think he's a hundred times better -- but ultimately, though I don't even mention Bush and Cheney in the play if you've read it, it's definitely about the red state/blue state polarization in the country.

The faux feud between Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna that was fabricated for All About Me was a pretty brilliant marketing scheme to build buzz for it. What'd you think of it?
[Laughs] Well, they were doing that before I was asked to join the project. But I thought it was funny.

Can we expect that same kind of tongue-in-cheek humor when the show opens in March?
It's frankly meant to be funny, and it's meant to build on both of their talents. When I was asked to work on the show, it was such an intriguing idea that they were doing a show together, and I like both of them. But their work is so incredibly different, and so how to combine it in one show is part of the challenge.

What was it like working with them?
Barry [Humphries], as you might guess from his Dame Edna, is really wonderful at improvisation and coming up with funny things off the top of his head; sometimes it's almost like turning on a knob and suddenly he starts talking in the Edna voice and suddenly he goes off on these different ideas and tangents. Michael is kind of the Alice in Wonderland seminormal person in the world of this [production], although he definitely has a sense of humor and is very charming.

In 1974 your first production at the Yale Rep, The Idiots Karamazov, starred a young student named Meryl Streep. Did you have any idea at the time that she'd become the great star she is today?
I thought she was wildly talented, and I expected and hoped that she would be very successful. She was like one year behind me. I just remember seeing her early work and going, Oh, I hope this keeps going. Then at a certain point it charged ahead in a way that I didn't entirely see. [Laughs] But she was quite wonderful in the play. The one thing that was quite funny about it was she was playing an 80-year-old translator of Russian literature and she was in a wheelchair and looked a little bit like the Wicked Witch of the West. She was made up to look 80 years old, so when I show people photos of her from the play, it doesn't look remotely like her! [Laughs] They always think, Was he making it up, was Meryl Streep really in the play? But she was.

What do you have planned after All About Me?
I owe a commission play to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton [N.J.], and that's the same theater that had commissioned me for my play Miss Witherspoon a few years ago. So they've been very patient about the fact that they would have liked a play from me last year but I just wasn't able to do it because of other commitments. So I will refocus on that once All About Me is up and running.

Do you have any subject ideas for that play?
I'm a little torn. I have another political play -- kind of like Why Torture Is Wrong. There's a part of me that wonders if I'm mining the same material too soon. It's also about red state/blue state, but it's not so much about terrorism. I've only done a third of it. Then I have another play that I've started that's not political, it's a little bit of a -- I don't know, if I say Chekhov parody, that makes it sound too light -- but it's a Chekhov parody set in Pennsylvania. I was thinking of having a reading of what I have of both of them and then discussing what their thoughts are on what I should pursue.

You've been with your partner for more than 20 years. What do you think about the current fight for marriage equality?
I'm hopeful that it goes through at some point. I can't tell how difficult it's going to be or not. I was very frustrated by the Supreme Court deciding that it couldn't be on the airwaves. I was also somebody who a few years ago was not that drawn to gay marriage. I think I'm one of those people who looked at heterosexual marriage and went, Oh, it binds you to one another and causes you all these troubles. So I wasn't that big of a fan of marriage. But I've been won over as I've listened to people who really want to be married.

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