A Conversation with Christoper Durang

When we wanted to talk to someone about Wendy Wasserstein's life and work, the playwright Christopher Durang, whose plays include A History of the American Film, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Beyond Therapy, and Sex and Longing, was a natural choice. They became friends in graduate school, and later Durang collaborated with her on projects and read or saw almost every play she wrote. At the memorial service for Wendy, he told hilarious stories about their friendship. We spoke to him by phone and asked to hear a few more stories about Wendy and what he thinks of Elements of Style.

You met Wendy at drama school, right? What was she like?

Wendy and I met in graduate school at the Yale School of Drama. Since I was a third year student when she was starting school, I had reason to see her application, and it included a picture. She looked sort of hostile and I knew she'd written a play called Any Woman Can't so I naturally I thought, "She must be intimidating and scary."

Then, we were in a class together and I noticed that she looked bored, and still vaguely hostile. So I went up to Wendy and said, "You must be very smart to be so bored already." Later, I was extremely flattered. She used that line in The Heidi Chronicles, and I quickly found out I had totally misunderstood her. Wendy was not at all scary, and the play she sent with her application was very funny.

What are some of your best memories of Wendy from that time?

We did a lot together. Even though I graduated after her first year, I stayed in New Haven to act. I wasn't making much money so Wendy and I looked for jobs together. We went to the Katy Cook employment agency, and they thought we were so delightful that they wanted to place us as a butler and maid! We declined, but eventually got jobs doing mindless office work together.

Good thing playwrighting worked out. What was it like after Yale, when you were both becoming successful?

In New York, our plays were starting to get done together. At the O'Neill Playwrights Conference they choose a group of plays and do staged readings of them. Wendy and I would hang out at each other's rehearsals, and a lot of up and coming actors were there too, like Meryl Streep.

We started going to parties connected to Wendy's agent at ICM, and got a taste of the film industry. Wendy was actually quite outgoing, and we met important people. We took a few meetings. We were asked to write a screenplay together. Before Fame was on television, we pitched a sit-com set at a drama school. We pitched an idea with a female lead, but the middle-aged single female executive we were talking to found it too vague.

Another woman we met with became a running gag with us. I'll call her Bobbie Bobbit. To Bobbie, everything in life seemed like an idea for a sitcom or television movie. For months afterwards whenever anything terrible happened Wendy would call me and say Bobbie wants to do a sitcom about it.

The characters in ELEMENTS OF STYLE are really outrageous. Do you know who they're based on?

I'm relieved to tell you I don't know them. If I could, I would ask her if they're real people. In her plays, particularly in the first two-thirds of her career, characters mirrored people in her life closely. She would take one aspect of a person and marry it to another.

I think she knew about this world of social status and money to some degree. Her family taught her that success and financial success were important. But I'm not sure if that's where the novel came from. Reviewers have said that this book is a lot like Edith Wharton's work or even Tom Wolfe's. The characters are comical caricatures. It's much more stylized than Wendy's better-known plays, and that might have been a conscious choice. It makes it seem like the characters aren't completely based on real people.

Some reviewers have made observations about similarities between Wendy and the main character, Frankie Weissman.

Oh yes, I think they're totally correct. Frankie grounds the book. She lets the reader laugh at the wealthy women who are frustrated that their doctor has chosen to have an office on upper upper Fifth Avenue. For all the ways that the novel is stylized, Frankie adds an emotional resonance that makes it like Wendy's plays. Sometimes Wendy was so unabashedly in her own plays—you knew her thoughts were in the script.

So is Frankie like the lead roles in those plays?

Usually, in her plays, the "Wendy characters" were shy, self-effacing, and giggly. Like Heidi in The Heidi Chronicles. Frankie is different. She's a reflection of Wendy's older self, a woman who has some unhappiness, but is very accomplished and confident. I noticed at the memorial service for Wendy when we watched video clips of her how articulate she was. There was something she knew she was good at, and that's how Frankie is.

Who would play her?

Joan Allen might make a good Frankie.

Do you see any Wendy in the other characters?

Not really. Samantha, the ideal girl, is the sort of person Wendy would be tortured by. It was interesting to see how quickly she becomes unhappy in her marriage and involved with a vulgar Hollywood man. Wendy's personality came through a little more with the tragedy that enters the novel. Of course, now it's hard not to think about this in the context of Wendy's own illness. She kept the details from almost all of her friends. We knew she was sick, but didn't know how sick. We didn't know what she was going through psychologically.

Even before she got sick, the two of us talked a lot about the randomness of tragedy. We were perplexed by how often people get confused trying to figure out if God is sending messages to them. Most things just seem random, and the novel supports this. It's vaguely comic, the random death, but adds so much depth to the story. I was almost relieved to find a growing sadness in the dialogue. Wendy's gift as a playwright is very self-evident as the quick, funny comedy of the rich people turns into a story filled with real emotions.

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