Joshua Harmon’s Subversive Second Act


In Significant Other, which just opened on Broadway, playwright Joshua Harmon explores the inner life of a familiar trope: the gay best friend. Found in everything from Wendy Wasserstein to Will & Grace, the gay best friend is at his most fully realized a supporting character, but more often than not he is a hollow construction—there to be a foil for a (usually female) protagonist, good for wisecracks, perhaps tough love, and not much else. Not so for Harmon. In his mind, a story’s side characters are usually the most interesting, offering complex and uncharted emotional terrain. Where we might see emptiness, he sees promise. Significant Other focuses on Jordan—played by Gideon Glick—a young gay man who watches as his beloved circle of female friends splinters apart marriage by marriage. Jordan struggles with an unrequited work romance and is convinced he’s going to end up alone.

Significant Other was first produced in 2015 at the Roundabout Theatre Company Off-Broadway, where it received critical acclaim. It is Harmon’s second play, following 2012’s biting family comedy Bad Jews (also produced at Roundabout, and also to rapturous acclaim). Having now made the move to Broadway, Harmon, at only 33, is considered something of a theater wunderkind. In January, it was announced Roundabout would once again stage his newest play, Skintight, in 2018. Ahead of Significant Other‘s opening, Interview reached Harmon by phone.

MATT MULLEN: Take me back to what the writing process was like for Significant Other. You’ve been clear that this was not inspired by events in your own life, so I’m curious what kind of headspace you were in.

JOSHUA HARMON: I started the play almost six years ago. I was on a retreat at this place called The Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, and they had what they called a “master artist” you applied to study with for three weeks. I went and studied with Annie Baker, and she gave us an assignment to write nine short scenes that you could shuffle and read in any order. So I wrote these nine scenes between this character, who became Jordan, talking to his therapist about Will, this guy at work, that he was really into and whom he wanted to take to see a documentary about the Franco-Prussian War. And for whatever reason I got very excited about the idea and the character, so while I was down there I bought this little notebook and I started to write in it. In the early stages I just thought it would be this epic play about unrequited love. So I was writing all these different ideas down. Six or eight months later, the Roundabout decided that they were going to produce Bad Jews. I got very scared about that if I went into rehearsal for Bad Jews without a grasp of something else and Bad Jews did not go well, I would maybe never write again. Even though I had not finished journaling about my play, I was like, “I have to start writing it.” So I quit my temp job and I forced myself to write a first draft. And the first draft was pretty insane; it was, like, 176 pages, a lot of it was Jordan talking to his therapist, and his grandmother. Then after Bad Jews happened I started to re-work it and it took me a bunch of years before it got to a place where we were ready for a production.

MULLEN: Interesting. The therapist character clearly fell to the wayside. But it seems like the grandmother stepped into that role.

HARMON: Yes. Weirdly, it was going to be a doubling role, the woman who was going to play the therapist was also going to be the grandmother. But I found getting rid of the therapy ended up activating a lot of the play. So instead it ended up becoming what I think are these really exciting scenes where Jordan’s date with Will is simultaneously happening in his memory as he is recounting it, and also in the moment, and while he’s living it in the moment he’s aware of how he’s gong to talk about it later, which I think we do sometimes. Or he’s just trying to figure out the story while he is in the story. So it puts you in his mind in a way that feels more theatrical and exciting to me.

MULLEN: I really enjoyed the blending of past, present, and future—how Jordan would move into the world of the story he was telling and back out into the conversation. Did that arise in the writing process? Or did some of that come from being in rehearsal?

HARMON: That was definitely in the writing of the play. But once we got into rehearsal and saw how it worked in a three dimensional way, that forces you to rethink some things. I remember during the rehearsal process we had to figure out what tense he should speak in. Is it past tense? Is it present tense? And then figuring out spatially where people exist when they’re being talked to, or listening or being talked about.

MULLEN: Jordan comes from the stereotype of the gay best friend, but is made to be extremely three-dimensional. I’m curious growing up, what kind of movies and TV shows and plays were you seeing, and what kind of characters and stereotypes were you maybe internalizing? Where did you pull from when you made this character?

HARMON: I wouldn’t throw any particular character, or play or movie, under the bus, although I will say just as an audience member whenever there’s a story, I’m almost always more interested in the supporting players rather than the lead character. I remember watching A League of Their Own, obsessively, and I was always like, “What is going on with Evelyn and her son?” [laughs] Or Joan Cusack in Working Girl. The people who live on the peripheries of the story are always more interesting to me. But I do remember when My Best Friend’s Wedding came out and what a watershed moment that was, to see a gay character in a mainstream movie and how three-dimensional he was.

MULLEN: I think supporting characters have a license to be weirder, or quirkier, as opposed to the protagonist, which maybe has to be more accessible or relatable.

HARMON: I agree. And sometimes supporting characters are more specifically drawn. Sometimes you get the feeling that in an attempt to tap into something universal you make something a bit more general, but you have these very specific supporting characters to anchor you to that world. And then they end up taking up more space in your imagination after.

MULLEN: That being said, how do you make your leading characters here feel so specific, since they don’t necessarily come from a personal space?

HARMON: I would say there’s a difference between being personal and being autobiographical. In terms of chronology of my life, this is not my story. But I listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell while I was writing the play and thought a lot about singer-songwriters and the emotional transparency of their work, which I find so appealing. It doesn’t mean that they’re describing a true experience but they’re digging as deep as they can into their emotional bedrock, if you will. It comes from close observation. One of the things that was really important to me in making the play was that we have three weddings. Usually in a play you have one wedding, and we have three. Those are huge moments and they normally get a lot of weight in a story, but I wanted to give them equal weight with, say, a first date.

MULLEN: How did playwriting come into the fold for you? Were you ever drawn to fiction writing, or songwriting?

HARMON: I’ve always loved writing and in high school I was writing all sorts of things. I decided that I wasn’t smart enough to be a fiction writer. I thought I maybe wanted to be a playwright and I remember I went to this conference for high school writers and I guess I articulated that and then somebody was like, “You are definitely a playwright.” You feel like you need to get permission from a lot of people, or you feel like a lot of people need encourage you. Then I was interested in music for a while but I knew I wasn’t musically inclined enough. The people I know who are great, their brains are wired in such a way that mine’s not. So playwriting combined all the things that I loved about writing and performance.

MULLEN: What has Significant Other‘s transition to Broadway been like? Is there more pressure? Has it been more exciting?

HARMON: It has been really exciting. Every time you write a new play, in a lot of ways it’s hypothetical until you put it up in front of an audience because you don’t know if it works, if they’re going to go on the ride with you. But this time, since we had done it before, we were confident we had a production that we felt proud of. What was kind of lovely about the process is it is ultimately a play about friendship. And even though some of the cast had known each other before, they did the play together for four months two years ago, and have all stayed very close friends. So now when those friendships are breaking apart in the play, there’s so much more for those actors to draw on because the feelings run much deeper. So it feels with time it’s become a richer and deeper experience.

MULLEN: Do you enjoy the rehearsal process?

HARMON: It feels manic to me. It’s when I feel my craziest. Because in London you get six or seven weeks of rehearsal on one play and in America you get three. And then half a week of tech. What’s weird about playwriting is that it starts out being a completely private venture; it’s just you and your play. And then all of a sudden there are all these people there and you’re still weirdly at the center of it because you’re rewriting and figuring it out. As it progresses, you become irrelevant ultimately, which is what has to happen. The actors have to do it. The tech has to be frozen. So then the thing that you’ve made, you’re suddenly outside of it. It’s very masochistic.

MULLEN: What does a normal day look like for a full-time playwright?

HARMON: They’re all so different, because you will go from having six months or two years where nothing is being produced so you have all of this free time. And then suddenly you are in rehearsal and you’re there eight hours a day and you’re rewriting and your whole schedule and world is upended. I’m not someone who gets up and writes for four hours every day, or even who writes every day. I like to think a lot of writing is just thinking. So taking a walk or staring at the celling are not unproductive things for a writer to do.

MULLEN: Skintight, your new play, sounds really intriguing.

HARMON: It’s very different from this play. It’s a play that’s examining questions of youth and beauty and sex. Like so many of my plays, I started writing this play in 2012. They take fucking forever. But I was younger when I started thinking about it. I wanted to understand why everybody was so obsessed with youth while I was still on the side of it. It seemed backwards to me, because I didn’t have that much fun being young and I didn’t understand why it seemed everyone who wasn’t young anymore was trying so hard to cling to youth. I wanted to write a play about those themes. It’ll be rated R. So … get ready! At least it is now. Who knows what it’ll be in a year.