THE NATURE AND PURPOSE OF THE UNIVERSE
When I read Christopher Durang’s comedy The Nature and Purpose of the Universe a few days before seeing Transient Theatre’s current production, I hardly cracked a smile. “This isn’t funny,” I thought, “this is sick.” Here was a play that told no coherent story, that presented instead a series of vaguely related vignettes about Eleanor Mann, a patient, long-suffering woman who is physically and emotionally abused by her family and friends (and even total strangers). Here was a playwright trying to squeeze laughs out of tragic events in Eleanor’s life–the breakdown of her marriage, the accidental castration of her youngest son–and openly mocking Eleanor for her faith (and by extension all Catholics) by having a pair of angels instigate most of Eleanor’s misfortunes.
True, it’s perfectly normal to enjoy watching someone else go through hell for a change (hence Mel Brooks’s definition of comedy: “Tragedy is me cutting my finger; comedy is you falling down an open manhole and breaking your neck”); but it’s hard to laugh if the comedy is too mean-spirited. To revise Brooks’s definition: we laugh when someone falls down an open manhole, we don’t if we worry that he’s broken his neck. And Christopher Durang’s cruel comedy comes dangerously close to tragedy.
Durang seems aware of the danger of this in his work. He points out in a note to the published play: “Eleanor’s plight must be presented sympathetically so we care about her, and yet her suffering must be sufficiently distanced and/or theatricalized . . . so that we can find it funny.” Such advice, however, only begs the question “What’s funny about all this suffering?”
Maybe Durang’s conflicted feelings about the Catholic church (he once wanted to take vows as a Benedictine) and about his family (which broke apart when he was still a boy) could only find expression in such an angry play. Durang wrote that “the extremity of suffering” in this play actually made him giddy. Whether this was the giddiness of an ex-Catholic ridiculing the beliefs he’d once held dear or the giddiness of a son finally expressing his anger at his parents, only Durang knows.
Certainly if Durang had written no other plays, no Sister Mary Ignatius, no A History of the American Film, no Laughing Wild, I’m not sure anyone would have bothered to produce The Nature and Purpose of the Universe. The work is too messy, too unfocused, too raw. The sort of effort you’d expect from someone who’s talented but still green (Durang was only a senior in college when he wrote the play).
Happily, director Bill Mann has done all he can to bring out the humor in the work and downplay Durang’s nasty nihilism. In Mann’s capable hands the physical comedy looks more like slapstick than physical abuse. The show’s stylized violence would never pass for the real thing.
Michelle Gregory, as Eleanor, plays the comic victim well, and we never for an instant worry that when her husband kicks her (which he does with terrifying frequency) that he’s really going to hurt her. She just keeps bouncing back. Even when the universe itself (personified by two very unhelpful angels) conspires against Eleanor, she remains an unreasonably good Catholic wife to the very end. Every time the universe deals her another unfair blow, she picks herself up and continues to face the uncertain future. She ignores her big problems, instead focusing on the small ones–“Please God, please make my vacuum cleaner work.”
“All our prayers are answered,” Sister Mary Ignatius tells us in another of Durang’s plays. “It’s just that sometimes the answer is no.” Thus Durang’s Catholic twist on Brooks’s definition: Tragedy is when God says no to my prayers; comedy is when he says no to yours.