*Published on 28 July 2015 on THE EDGE
Playwright Joshua Harmon has an unwavering ear for dialog and an unflinching ability to regard his generation from a catbird seat that provides us glimpses into the world of Millennials both gay and straight.
Harmon is ubiquitously quoted as saying that seeing “Medea” at age ten with Diana Rigg was a pivotal point in his calling to be a playwright. However, he also had turns in “Peter Pan,” and “thinks” he perhaps played the Wicked Witch of the West in nursery school. All pitch perfect experiences to prepare him to express his diverse visions of modern life for eager theatergoers.
His first widely produced play “Bad Jews” was a success that leaped the pond from off-Broadway to London and garnered accolades everywhere it landed. Harmon seems to have a knack to creating work that is often described as “savagely funny,” (which is what Harmon calls an ability to be both “deep and silly.”) His newest work “Significant Other” plows those same tropes by unearthing humor and pathos in equal measure.
And like his previous effort, it has received excellent notices. “The play, which opened on Thursday at the Laura Pels Theater in a Roundabout Theater Company production directed with nimble grace by Trip Cullman, is as richly funny as it is ultimately heart-stirring,” wrote Charles Isherwood in reviewing the play in the New York Times last month. (It continues through August 18.)
Insecurity drives comedy
In an interview at a Chelsea coffee shop Harmon says that often his comedy comes “a lot from insecurity. Comedy is instant gratification. If the audience is laughing, you know they are with you and it keeps them both open and listening when you want to a deeper moment.
“Comedy protects the writer when you’re going deeper, and it also serves a scientific function in the play. Joni Mitchell said, ‘laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release,’ and she’s right. A laugh before an intense moment can open an audience up”
Harmon says that when he finished “Significant Other” he thought it the saddest play he had ever written. Then, taking of those brave comedy pauses, adds, “until the first reading. But the comedy often takes care of itself.” That may be true if you have been an esteemed member of Juilliard’s graduate playwriting program for three years. The normal length of time given to graduate fellows is two years, but Harmon was invited back again and again to work with Marsha Norman and comedy wunderkind Christopher Durang.
“The osmosis of being allowed to absorb navigating 40 year careers in the theater and being taught how to build bridges and understand, as Norman says, that playwriting is not a ‘renewable resource’ created a kind of wonderful urgency in me,” he reflected on working with those Tony-winning playwrights.
Many want to draw parallels with Harmon and Jordan Berman, the lead character of “Significant Others.” Berman is a 29-year old gay man afloat in a sea of gal pals who one by one get married. Now 32, Harmon wrote the play right before “Bad Jews” went into rehearsals at the Roundabout Underground in 2012. Though Harmon is circumspect about the details of his personal life, he does demur that the play is not autobiographical, but rather it seeks to pose some deep questions he and his cohorts grapple with often.
“The seed of the work is true for me, but as I write it becomes something else. In this play at the nexus is the story about a wedding. With most weddings you are looking at the bride, but here I wanted to say that the Gay best friend is also worthy of examination. Jordan is a member of a group that is often underrepresented, at the margins. That places an extra burden on him, but he’s not meant to represent an entire population. He’s one individual character.”
Harmon admits that he didn’t come out until after college and “it was a tough time, as it felt strange trying to understand how I fit into the world. The notion that your biology is not wired in the dominant direction.” Perhaps it is his searching nature that gives Harmon such enlightened access to both the worlds of all those around him. Harmon is at work on two commissions, so he is happily busy. Certainly the trajectory of this young writer will be eagerly watched.
“Significant Other” continues through August 16 at the Laura Pels Theater, Manhattan. For more information, visit the Roundabout Theatre website.