Christopher Durang, the Surrealist of Snark

Pickpocketing Chekhov for dramatic capital is almost a rite of passage among playwrights, but only Christopher Durang invested the loot in beefcake.

In his play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Vanya and Sonia are more-or-less familiar transplants from the Russian hinterlands to Bucks County, Pa., dithering so much about the purpose of life that they neglect to have one. Masha, though a movie star, is a Chekhov type, too: endlessly fascinating, especially to herself.

But you will not find Spike anywhere in the canon; a jovial, amoral, ab-tastic himbo, he is apparently unfamiliar with the function of clothes. They keep coming off.

Durang, who died on Tuesday night at 75, was likewise a stripper, peeling the pants off serious theater, both to admire and ridicule what it was packing beneath. When “Vanya” won the Tony Award for best play in 2013, it was the culmination of a writing life spent remaking the respectable precedents and characters of the past in the snarky image of his own times. Drama became comedy, but then — surprise! — swung back toward drama, then swung back again, never quite settling. In making us laugh and then demanding a retraction, Durang became an absurdist Neil Simon for a post-great generation.

Billy Magnussen as Spike, with Genevieve Angelson as Nina, in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2012 production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Often enough, the laughing was of the can’t-catch-your-breath variety, further dizzying the ambivalence of the culturati by punching both high and low. I didn’t see any of the plays and sketches he wrote while a student at the Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s, often collaborating with pals like Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep, Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein, but the titles tell you a lot: “Better Dead Than Sorry,” “The Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor,” “When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth,” “The Idiots Karamazov.”

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