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Tony-winning playwright Christopher Durang dies at 75

NEW YORK — Playwright Christopher Durang, a master of satire and black comedy who won a Tony Award for "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist with "Miss Witherspoon," has died. He was 75.

Durang died Tuesday at his home in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, of complications from logopenic primary progressive aphasia, said his agent, Patrick Herold. In 2022, it was revealed Durang had been diagnosed in 2016 with the disorder, a rare form of Alzheimer's disease.

Durang's plays were infused with a smart, high-octane sense of absurdism. His works include "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," ″Baby with the Bathwater," ″The Marriage of Bette and Boo," "Betty's Summer Vacation" and ″Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge."

"I am one of those people who laughed at not funny things," Durang told the crowd at a Dramatists Guild conference in 2013. "If you watch the adults around you make the same mistake 20 times in a row, at a certain point you want to jump out the window or you laugh. I was one of the ones who laughed."

The playwright had arguably his brightest career moment with "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," a sweet and witty play inspired by Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and "Three Sisters" with a huge pop culture appetite that made it to Broadway starring David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen.

It centers on three middle-aged siblings named after Chekhov characters who are uneasily negotiating with age. Two of them — Vanya and Sonia — have been sitting around their Pennsylvania home and bickering for years ever since their parents died. The sibling who escaped, Masha, has become an insufferable movie star and has returned to sell the house, leaving her sister and brother with the prospect of being homeless and penniless.

Durang flung all kinds of references into his word processor: Angelina Jolie, Snow White, Maggie Smith, global warming, Norma Desmond, William Penn, "Peter Pan," the HBO show "Entourage," Lindsay Lohan, ancient Greek drama, voodoo and, of course, Chekhov. "I am a wild turkey," one character says, a riff on Chekhov's "The Seagull."

"I knew I was writing a comedy, but for all I knew it could turn out comically despairing. I was surprised the play was less bitter than I thought it would be," Durang told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013.

The Associated Press called it "all a bit silly, a tad daffy and very, very sweet," while The New York Times said "there's something deeply comforting about Durang, of all people, delivering Chekhov's lost souls from their eternal misery, if only for one night."

In his Tony acceptance speech, Durang noted that he wrote his first play in second grade in 1958. "It's been a long road but I'm very happy to be here," he told the crowd.

His other plays included Broadway's "Beyond Therapy" — about two therapists trying to counsel two people looking for love who are as needy as the patients they are trying to help — and "The Actor's Nightmare," about a man pulled from the audience into a play he's completely unfamiliar with.

He was nominated for a Tony for best book of a musical in 1978 for "A History of the American Film" — about Hollywood's Golden Age — and named a Pulitzer finalist in 2006 for "Miss Witherspoon" — about a woman who wishes to die but is continually reincarnated on Earth.

Eli Browning, the executive director of Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in 2010 that Durang made catharsis possible through humor.

″People don't like to be preached at, but if you get them to laugh at something or at themselves, then you have a chance to sneak the truth in for them to consider," he told the Albuquerque Journal.

A New Jersey native, Durang was born to an alcoholic architect and a homemaker — both Catholic. He liked to talk about his first play, written when he was 8. It was a two-page version of an "I Love Lucy" episode and he got to cast and direct. Later he wrote a musical with a friend at a Catholic, all-boys prep school.

Durang attended Harvard College, studying under William Alfred, and the Yale School of Drama, where he was taught by cartoonist Jules Feiffer and met Weaver, with whom he wrote and co-starred in the satiric cabaret "Das Lusitania Songspiel" and who went on to star in many of his plays.

Durang was co-chair of The Juilliard School's playwrights program since its inception, in 1994, with Marsha Norman and has also taught at Yale and Princeton. He retired from his position at Juilliard in spring 2016. His students included playwrights Stephen Belber and David Lindsay-Abaire. The latter took over for him at Juilliard.

Durang's other Broadway credits include "All About Me" in 2010 and "Sex and Longing" in 1996. He also wrote screenplays for such films as "The Adventures of Lola" and "The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance." He was a staff writer for "Carol and Robin and Whoopi and Carl" in 1985.

He was also an actor, with his first speaking role being a put-upon executive in Herbert Ross' "The Secret of My Success" starring Michael J. Fox. Durang was a regular on a 2001 sitcom called "Kristin," starring Kristin Chenoweth. He also acted opposite Debra Monk in 2005 in a revival of "Laughing Wild" at The Huntington Theater in Boston.

In 2000, he won the Sidney Kingsley Playwriting Award. A year later, he won an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1995, he won the prestigious three-year Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award; as part of his grant, he ran a writing workshop for adult children of alcoholics. Over his career, he won three playwrighting Obie awards.

He is survived by his husband, John Augustine.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press