Orville Mendoza and Michele Ragusain Adrift in Macao(© Mark Garvin)
Orville Mendoza and Michele Ragusa
in Adrift in Macao
(© Mark Garvin)
Much to the delight of New York theatergoers, our city is in the midst of what pretty much amounts to an unplanned Christopher Durang festival. The wickedly comic playwright's 1987 piece Laughing Wild was recently revived Off-Broadway, and a production of his lesser-known 1977 work The Vietnamization of New Jersey has just opened at the Beckett. On Monday, January 29, a free reading of the stage adaptation of his teleplay Wanda's Visit will take place at the Wings Theater, on a double bill with Noël Coward's Fumed Oak.

But the most fabulous Durang event of all is happening at Primary Stages, where Adrift in Macao begins previews on January 23. This "madcap musical parody of glamorous films noirs" marks Durang's first collaboration with composer Peter Melnick, whose credits include Chinese Cabaret, Twyla Tharp's Sextet, and the score for the Steve Martin film L.A. Story. (Melnick happens to be the grandson of the late, great Richard Rodgers.)

Directed by Sheryl Kaller and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, Adrift in Macao is set largely at Rick Shaw's Surf 'n' Turf Nightclub and Gambling Casino in 1952. The show debuted at the Philadelphia Theatre Company last year, and co-stars Rachel deBenedet, Michele Ragusa, and Orville Mendoza all won Barrymore Awards for their performances. These three super-talents have returned for the Primary Stages production; Alan Campbell (Sunset Boulevard) plays the role of Mitch; and Will Swenson plays Rick Shaw, replacing Michael Rupert, who's in San Francisco in the Broadway-bound Legally Blonde.

Though Durang is best known for such plays as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Beyond Therapy, and Miss Witherspoon, he adores musicals and has had more hands-on experience with the art form than many people realize. Indeed, his first produced play -- The Idiots Karamazov, co-written with Albert Innaurato -- had several songs with music by Jack Feldman. His next effort, A History of the American Film, played on Broadway in 1978 and featured a dozen songs with music by Mel Marvin.

Actually, Durang had been bitten by the musical theater bug many years before that, at quite a tender age. "In high school, I wrote the book and lyrics for two musicals," he says. "Later, when I was at the Yale School of Drama, I tended to put songs in my one acts -- partly because Bertolt Brecht put songs in some of his plays. I had a one-act musical done at Yale. That was how I met Sigourney Weaver; she and I were in it together."

How did he and Melnick begin their journey to Macao? "Peter called me out of the blue," Durang relates. "He wanted to know if I'd write a short musical with him as a companion piece for something he'd already written. I listened to his music and liked it. There was one song I particularly liked, called 'Time.' It's very bluesy and full of yearning -- and, for some reason, it made me think of old movies set in nightclubs. I've been describing our show as a film noir parody, but it doesn't focus on the crime aspects of those movies; it's more about the ambience of women who sing in clubs and fall in love with mysterious men who are hard to pin down."

Melnick admits that he pushed the envelope in "cold calling" Durang to initiate the partnership: "I had the chutzpah to do it because, at that point, I was not sufficiently of the theater world that I didn't know you really don't just call Christopher Durang and say, 'Hi, do you want to write a show with me?' But he was very gracious." So, how's it going between the two of them? "Chris writes lyrics like Christopher Durang," says Melnick. "His humor really comes through in his lyrics." Here's a sample, sung by a character named Tempura: "Americans are filthy / Nasty, vile, and vicious / Feet as big as mountain / Brain as small as pea / Why can't you be gracious / Like tea of August moon? / I wish you'd learn some manners / Or hope you die real soon."

Says Durang, "I had been approached in the past by some composers who wanted to work with me, but their work was slightly more modern than my own musical sensibility. I told that to Peter in advance. I said, 'Just so you know, I have rather old-fashioned tastes in musicals; I like Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. That's when he told me that Richard Rodgers was his grandfather."

Melnick is the son of film producer Daniel Melnick and Rodgers' daughter Linda (which also makes him the cousin of Adam Guettel, composer-lyricist of The Light in the Piazza). "It's not that I'm coy about it," he says. "There's no theater writer that has influenced me more than my grandfather. To me, he's the gold standard for honest musical theater writing. So I'm certainly not embarrassed that I'm his grandson, but I also don't want to make like that's all I'm about. It's the elephant in the room."

Peter Melnick and Christopher Durang(© Michael Portantiere)
Peter Melnick and Christopher Durang
(© Michael Portantiere)
What exactly is Adrift in Macao all about? "There is a bit of a plot to the show, although it's deconstructed," says Durang. "Mitch, who's named for Robert Mitchum, is seeking Mr. McGuffin, who has somehow wronged him. I knew the term 'McGuffin' from reading interviews with Hitchcock; he used it as his nickname for the fact that these plots don't really matter except as something to hang suspense on." Melnick has dressed the story with music that, in his words, "definitely hearkens back to the '40s and '50s. 'Pastiche' never sounds like a good thing to be, but this is a very melodic score."

Opening a musical in New York can be extremely nerve-wracking, even when you've got one or two previous productions under your belt; but, according to Melnick, Adrift in Macao is going very smoothly. "It occurs to me that this is the point where I should be biting my nails and feeling a lot of pressure," he remarks, "but I don't feel that way at all, because Chris and I have done our homework. We learned a lot about the show at New York Stage and Film [at Vassar College], which is where we did it back in 2002. When we did it last year in Philadelphia, it got really good notices. But I think we've made it even stronger since then, and we've got a great cast. We're having so much fun, I almost feel I shouldn't be able to call this my job."