It's taken nearly 30 years, but it's finally happened: With his new play Miss Witherspoon at Playwrights Horizons, Christopher Durang has officially become a full-blown optimist.
Not that this is a completely unexpected development. After Durang burst into the public consciousness by demonstrating his unique penchant for parody and satire with plays like Das Lusitania Songspiel and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You, he started out to prove that he could produce laugh machines with meaning. Though critical and popular responses have been wildly mixed, Durang has spent the last 20 years of his career seeking an ideal balance between belly-busting laughter and honest examinations of life's struggles and the positive repercussions that can occasionally result.
With Miss Witherspoon, Durang's completed that journey; whether longtime fans will regard this as a good thing is another matter entirely. While this is a vintage Durang comedy in its often bizarre invocation of disparate elements ranging from Rex Harrison and religion to Arianna Huffington and Skylab and its starring of the fabulous Kristine Nielsen (who also starred in Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation), the razor-sharp edges that so frequently define Durang plays are nowhere to be found.
So those hoping (praying?) for a vivid vivisection of current societal mores, long one of Durang's stocks-in-trade, are out of luck - you get just a bit of that in this story about a woman who must reincarnate until she gets life right. And those whose ideas of faith and its followers are more in tune with the Durang of Sister Mary Ignatius might not have patience for this more forgiving view of the afterlife, with its helpful, humorous spirits and the appearance of Jesus Christ (though He is in the guise of a middle-aged black woman).
But for most everyone else, this could well prove the most accessible, straightforwardly provocative Durang play to date. This is due to a number of factors: the subject matter (who hasn't feared or fretted about the state of the world or the nature of death at some point?); director Emily Mann, whose spirited, busy-but-never-bewildering staging finds a precise balance between cartoon seriousness and grounded comedic airiness; and Nielsen, who brings an hilarious Everywoman quality and delightfully scattered line delivery to the titular character's search for truth and harmony in a universe where neither is exactly the order of the day.
"I didn't like being alive," she says not long after dying her first time, "I don't trust it." It's that reluctance to believe in life's possibilities that leads her spirit to the bardo, a kind of waiting room between death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism from which her various reincarnations will begin. Miss Witherspoon - that's her spirit name, so bestowed on her because of her "brown tweed aura" and her behavior "like some negative Englishwoman in an Agatha Christie book" - wants no part of it, and rejects the attempts of her afterlife guide Maryamma (Mahira Kakkar) to help reinstate her into the world of the living.
She wants her existence to end, preferably with the Jewish concept of heaven, a kind of prolonged state of "general anesthesia." But whoever said life and death were that easy? She is eventually reincarnated several times, each time learning more about herself, humanity, and the ways the two can converge, until she's faced with the choice of accepting what she's given or learning what she can take and give in return.
The more Miss Witherspoon unfolds, the more conventional and less effective it becomes. Durang's passion pours through even in lines that he might once have rejected as trite ("You don't get ahead with suicide" is one typical line; "Suffering and life are mysteries ... We can't choose to escape" is another), but while he has no problems negotiating the gradual shift from arched-eyebrow wariness to resigned acceptance, all the play's most effortless laughs and surprises occur early on. The conclusion is so burdened by excessive plot dispensing and unearned dramatic weight that it can seem as though you dozed off and woke up near the end of another play.
Even so, Durang avoids maudlin proselytizing, even when cold-running hot-button issues like drug use or child abuse factor into the story. And the effusively funny and likeable Kakkar and the rest of the supporting cast - Colleen Werthmann as two different mothers; Jeremy Shamos as two different fathers and a Gandalf-type wise man named, well, Gandalf; and Lynda Gravátt as an understanding teacher and Jesus - skillfully skirt the boundaries between rigidly serious portrayals and the uniquely stylized characters-as-caricatures that have always been Durang staples.
But it's Nielsen, as both Durang's onstage mouthpiece and harshest critic, who finds the most recognizable life here. Flighty, fidgety, resolute, and oh so funny as she navigates the rough seas of fate and free will, she makes for the ideal Durang heroine: the eternal doubter accepting (however little) of new opportunities, open enough to change to give the true believers pause and the true disbelievers reason to reconsider.
Yes, she's a long way from Sister Mary Ignatius, and if you never expected this playwright conjure up someone like her, you're not alone. But Miss Witherspoon's journey is Durang's journey, from disbelief to acceptance, from what most assuredly is not to what just might possibly be, and if the play detailing that journey is sometimes shaky and uncertain, Nielsen's wonderful wackiness, which exudes a welcome warming effect on her cool surroundings, is never less than absolutely sure.