There was a substantial (and as might be predicted) negative reaction to a recent New York Times list of the 25 best plays produced since 1993. No one was more outraged than the reader who argued that because not one Joshua Harmon play was included, the list “can therefore [expletive] right off.”
I’m on the phone with Harmon, 36, to discuss his new play, “Skintight,” and I mention this to him. “I did not see that,” he says, adding, “but I assume it was my mother.”
It wasn’t mom, but rather a theatergoer who recognized the seeds of greatness in Harmon. In just four productions, Harmon has established himself as the Great Jewish American playwright of his generation, in the tradition of Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, and Alfred Uhry. I mention this to him, too, and he demurs. Sort of.
“It’s not something I aspire to,” he says. “Not something I thought about a great deal. I’m just trying to write plays I want to see and those plays tend to include characters from my background. I can’t say that [I’m the Great Playwright].
“But I’m very happy to have someone else say that about me.”
So I will.
Harmon is known most famously as the author of “Bad Jews,” an exploration of Jewish identity — more on that later. “Skintight” asks the question, What is love? A brilliant Idina Menzel plays Jodi Isaac, a mid-40s lawyer who flies to New York from Los Angeles ostensibly to surprise her wealthy father, Elliot (Jack Wetherall), on his 70th birthday.
But she’s really made the trip in search of familial solace; her 50-year-old former husband has thrown himself and his 24-year-old girlfriend — Jodi had discovered them in her bed — an engagement party attended by all “my friends with my kids at my favorite restaurant.”
But Elliot couldn’t care less about her or his grandchildren. He’s more interested in his 20-year-old boyfriend, with skin so smooth “I’d like to sleep in a bed with sheets made from” it.
For the record, just because the play questions the meaning of love doesn’t mean that its author understands it. “I don’t know that I have a clear answer,” he says. “That’s why I wrote the play.”
“Skintight” is very funny — at times hilarious — but it’s also sad, and its major characters are not very likable. Elliot is cold and self-absorbed. Jodi is needy. Her son, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), is the only one who has a sense of his family’s history. He’s in Hungary, majoring in queer studies, and he says:
“I’m living in the place our family lived in for centuries and, I mean, if you want to see a Jewish name in Hungary you have to go to the Holocaust memorial.” Still, he comes off as foppish to the point of being an almost offensive caricature.
Getting theatergoers to like his characters is not a priority for Harmon. “Likability is not a question that interests me terribly,” he says. “I feel if you want to meet likable characters you should go to a barbecue. I don’t think theater is a place to make friends. I don’t think Willie Loman or Blanche Dubois are particularly likable.
“To me, the point of a play is to see characters in difficult situations, see how they navigate them and maybe empathize with them. My favorite plays are not about people I like, but people who intrigue me.”
Still, a Jewish grandpa who doesn’t like his kid or his kid’s kids? “I think there are a lot of people like that,” Harmon says. “A lot of people who are unhappy with their parents and their grandparents. I know that’s not true for all people, but I’ve seen it through careful observation and in talking to friends and people I know.”
But he did not experience that dysfunction personally. On the contrary, he grew up in Westchester County in a comfortable upper middle class, conservative Jewish home; unlike poor Benjamin, he had loving grandparents. In fact, his grandmother was in part responsible for his career.
“She took me to a lot of shows in New York and really encouraged me. She just died in April. She was sort of an Auntie Mame figure who would take me to wildly inappropriate museum exhibits and plays.” Among them (when he was just 10 years old): “Medea,” by Euripides, in which a scorned wife murders her successor. (Jodi, are you listening?)
Unlike “Bad Jews” his new work has no single starting point. “Bad Jews” had its — you should pardon the expression — genesis in a Holocaust remembrance service while Harmon was in college.
“Instead of having the survivors there, it was the grandchildren speaking about their grandparents,” he says. “But I found the experience much less moving than any previous ceremony. Something about that not being moving stayed with me. And made me ask ‘What does it mean for my generation to be inheritors of this legacy?’”
The play, which made stars of Tracee Chimo and Ridgewood’s Michael Zegen, was about a religiously observant woman fighting her secular cousin over a chai necklace that their survivor grandfather had managed to smuggle out of the camps, a gift he wants to give to his non-Jewish girlfriend.
On the face of it, given its title and plot, you’d think “Bad Jews” would be a niche production, but it is one of the most produced plays in the world, with lengthy runs from England to Australia — places whose residents are unlikely to know much about Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where “Bad Jews” is set.
“I think the trick is to write very specifically about a specific group of people, and that somehow taps into something that is universal,” in this case “cultural assimilation,” Harmon says.
Still, Harmon was surprised by the play’s success. “It’s what you hope for when you set out. That you will be produced. On one level the success is bizarre. I wasn’t prepared for it. I’m not sure anyone could be.”
On the other hand, it hasn’t reduced his level of anxiety. “Anxiety is like a suitcase you carry with you and periodically unpack,” Harmon says. “Before ‘Bad Jews’ it was will I ever have a production? Then it becomes about writing the next play. How it will be received?”
Sounds like the subject of a play about this Jewish writer.
“Skintight” is at the Laura Pels Theater through August 26.