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Christopher Durang and Sigourney Weaver on Reuniting for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Christopher Durang and Sigourney Weaver have done nicely since meeting at the Yale School of Drama in the early seventies. Durang has written dozens of plays (including Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Beyond Therapy) and acted on TV and in films. Weaver, after besting a particularly resilient space creature in her underwear, was launched into movie-stardom, returning frequently to the theater, sometimes in plays by her old friend Chris. His Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spikejust transferred to Broadway—is a typically Durangian stew with heavy Chekhovian seasoning, in which Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, and Kristine Nelson star as unhappy siblings Masha, Vanya, and Sonia. At our lunch in New York, Durang showed up in a full-leg cast, pushed in a wheelchair by his partner, John Augustine.

What on Earth have you done to yourself?
Christopher Durang:
It was during a reading of Kiss Me, Kate at Yale late last year—about six minutes before the end of the last performance. I was feeling ebullient, and I had an impulse to jump down from a step—it was about this far [indicates about two feet]. I landed and I knew something had happened, and I just fell to the ground. Someone actually said, “Is there a doctor in the house?” This being Yale, about twelve people came up. [Weaver arrives, and gives Durang and Augustine hugs.]
Sigourney Weaver:
Hi! Thank you for getting us together. We’ve been working so hard that we don’t actually get to sit and talk.
C.D.:
I was telling her about being too old to do that jump, which is why I fell.
S.W.:
You are not too old to do that jump. That’s a whole other conversation. [Turning to me] You don’t want to be here for that.
C.D.:
As it happens, feeling older has something to do with this play. In my twenties, I read all of Chekhov, but I hadn’t lived it. And I realized that I’m at the age of Uncle Vanya. Well, actually, I think Vanya is 40 [laughs] and I am way past that.
S.W.:
But now you’re his age mentally.
C.D.:
[Laughs] Yes. Anyway, John and I have lived for 22 years in Bucks County, in a farmhouse on a hill. So I thought: What if I’d lived in this house my whole life, without ever getting out and doing anything, like Vanya and Sonia? And I forgot that in Uncle Vanya, Sonia was his niece, so I made her his stepsister so she could have a crush on him.
S.W.:
Adopted sister.
C.D.:
You’re so right. I keep saying “stepsister.”
S.W.:
Well, I’m in the play. I hear it ­every night.
C.D.:
And then I thought, who is the person coming into their world [to stir things up], and I thought of my friend Sigourney, who, like Masha, is a movie star who is always traveling. But I also included traits that were the opposite of her, like Sigourney hasn’t been married five times and isn’t a narcissist in the way that Masha is.
S.W.:
No, just in my own way.
C.D.:
The other thing that impacted the play was that I ran into someone from my college days, before Yale, who came out at age 55, with three daughters and a very angry wife. And I thought my coming-out in college was difficult! But I went to therapy.
S.W.:
We had the same therapist for a while.
C.D.:
He was kind of wonderful, but eccentric.
S.W.:
A hugger.
C.D.:
He was terribly supportive. He’d say things like, “Well, I don’t blame you for feeling that. That’s normal.”

Clearly not a Freudian.
C.D.:
No, definitely not. I’ve never been with a Freudian.
S.W.:
I’ve been with a Horneyan.
C.D.:
I’ve never heard of that.
S.W.:
Based on Karen Horney. I was dating this guy and I went to her to see if I should marry him—and, by the way, if you need to ask, it means you shouldn’t. So I figured that out, and I wanted to leave therapy, and I remember she said [adopts thick European accent], “Sigourney, there are a lot of dark corners left.”
C.D.:
[Laughs] So when I heard about my friend, that was the impetus for Vanya being [an unrequited] gay man in the play, and I left it a little opaque. I think he might have had a fling and then decided it was wrong.

Sigourney, what keeps bringing you back to Chris’s plays? 
S.W.:
It demands everything of you: physically, mentally, emotionally. [Looks at Durang] Fuck you! No, it’s a great thing. Chris’s plays are all like that—about something, but madcap. I remember with Titanic, we had to list what the scenes were in the back because you couldn’t remember who you were—you know, which of my multiple personalities am I in the next scene, and have I preset the hamsters in my bloomers?

Chris, this is a lot less anarchic than your past work. There’s a happy ending, for one thing—and what brings the siblings together is David Hyde Pierce’s meltdown monologue, which positions The Ed Sullivan Show as Vanya’s ideal of a shared experience.
C.D.:
It’s funny, but not until I was writing Vanya’s speech did I have this thought about watching Ed Sullivan as a kid. I was exposed to the Beatles and Broadway and classical music. No one person or show is doing that now—bringing all of culture to us. You end up going to what you already know and like. 

Though, thanks to social media, people are having national conversations we never could.
S.W.:
But now it’s all about commenting rather than experiencing things. And different generations watched and shared together back then. It won’t be long before the Facebook generation will be rejected by the non­-Facebook people who will be rejected by the post-Facebook people. Everyone will be on their own planet.

Do you remember your pre-Facebook impressions of each other, back at Yale?
S.W.:
[Laughing] I have no idea. We bonded over our radar for crackpot things.
C.D.:
The actors had classes together, and writers and directors had classes together, and once a week the actors would read our work. I forget—did you read in that class before we did Better Dead Than Sorry?
S.W.:
We did that the second year.
C.D.:
No, no, we did it the first year.
S.W.:
No. Because they’d already told me I had no talent. I’d gone outside the college to do work, and then in the spring we did Better Dead, and the teachers said, “Now that we’ve seen that, we realize you do have some talent. Just stick to comedy and you’ll be all right.” 
C.D.:
Do you remember doing Trudi and the Minstrel the first year at Yale?
S.W.:
Yes—it was a children’s show. Probably what they gave actors they didn’t know what to do with. Chris played my troll. I got to beat him!
C.D.:
It’s British and very dark. Sigourney played Baroness Von Grubelstein, and it was written that when she beat her troll he would go into ecstasy.

This is a children’s show?
C.D.:
Yes! Most of the actors thought it was beneath them, but Sigourney had fun with it, and I liked that about her.

Chris, were you surprised to see your goofball friend kicking butt in
Alien?
C.D.:
I have such a vivid memory of that. She told me she’d made this movie. I didn’t know too much about it, except that it was science fiction. So I went to see it, and as the movie was going on I was thinking she was terrific and looked great, and I started to notice that people were dying off, one by one. Then Tom Skerritt died, and he had top billing! And I thought, is Sigourney the lead? And the last ten or fifteen minutes were just her. And I thought, Oh my God, this is so exciting! A month later, her face was on the cover of Time.
S.W.: It’s interesting—you go to Hollywood because you want to do all of it, and I have no regrets about Alien. But it did take my life—you know, Ripley is so serious. People are amazed that I do comedy. I always did comedy.

Do either of you Google yourselves?
S.W.:
No, no, I would be afraid.

Then you probably missed the kerfuffle over your SAG Awards dress in February, which you apparently wore backward?
S.W.:
Someone told me about it. And I did not wear it backward. The label is huge, so you’d have to be a cretin not to know which way to put it on. As if you don’t get dressed with 40 people taking care of your hair and makeup!

*This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Illustration by Jimmy Turrell