Complex, Flawed, and Hilarious: Joshua Harmon's Vision of Humanity

Incisive, witty, bitingly satiric, but with plenty of heart, Joshua Harmon’s plays deftly entwine the problematic and the comic. Harmon explores large themes in intimate family situations, sometimes revealing surprising emotional depth in larger-than-life characters who receive parodic treatment, and other times revealing the hypocrisy of characters who are not all that they appear. The act of interrogation motivates Harmon’s work. He explains that his plays begin as “a question that I don’t have an answer to,” usually big-picture questions about identity, romance, religion, or technology, just to name a few.

Thirty-five-year-old Harmon hails from the town of Rye Brook in Westchester County, just outside of New York City. At age ten, his grandmother offered to take him to a Broadway show if he could finish reading the play beforehand: Euripides’ Medea. The connection with Medea seems apt for Harmon’s drama—though nowhere as lethal as the Greek tragedy, Harmon’s plays investigate tensions within families as microcosms of larger cultural issues, much like their ancient Greek antecedent.

From that early contact with drama, Harmon felt a sense of vocation to write plays throughout high school, later going on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in dramatic writing from Northwestern University and an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University. He also completed a rigorous fellowship at the Juilliard School, where Tony Award-winning playwright Christopher Durang served as Harmon’s mentor, extending him an extra fellowship year.

Harmon’s breakthrough play, Bad Jews, premiered at Roundabout Theatre in 2012, and was a smash hit at Studio during its thrice-extended 2014 run—it remains the best-selling play in Studio history, returning for a holiday remount in 2015. Artistic Director David Muse lauds Bad Jews as a “wickedly funny play that starts conversations because it’s about something real.” The play centers on cousins Daphna, Liam, and Jonah congregating after their grandfather’s funeral, bargaining for an heirloom and debating their relationship with Judaism. Harmon wrote the play as a National New Play Network fellow at Atlanta’s Actor’s Express.

Bad Jews gained nationwide acclaim in regional theatres—in fact, it was one of the Top 10 Most Produced Plays in the United States during the 2014-15 season, according to American Theatre. However, despite the play’s major success across the country, Harmon recalls writing Bad Jews in relative obscurity while plagued by self-doubt. Harmon had recently quit his job, moved back in with his parents, and found himself writing daily in Starbucks. Harmon’s inspiration for the play came not from his own family, but by attending a service featuring speeches from the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors as an undergrad. However, his family was instrumental in shoring up Harmon’s confidence. On a trip back home to New York’s suburbs after submitting the play to the Lark for a reading, Harmon remembers responding to his father’s question “Is this play any good?” by pulling out a copy. “Somehow,” Harmon says, “my lawyer-father and psychology-grad-student sister morphed into actors, and we began to read...having the weight of my family behind me was essential.” Bad Jews did eventually receive the Lark reading, before Roundabout Theatre Company committed to producing it.

Harmon’s next play, Significant Other, also premiered at Roundabout before transferring to Broadway. The comedy follows Jordan, a young gay man, and his friendship with three straight women, all of whom are hurtling towards marriage just as Jordan’s own romantic prospects dwindle. Harmon concludes that the big-picture question motivating this work is “what it means to be alone and what you do when you know what would make your life better but you can’t make it happen.” Harmon wrote Significant Other before rehearsals for Bad Jews even began, as he feared that if Bad Jews flopped, he would abandon writing altogether. He resolved himself to writing a first draft of a different play—a play that mixes past, present, and future and expands upon the stereotypical “gay best friend” role by creating a more three-dimensional, central figure in Jordan. Harmon recalls mining the “emotional bedrock” of Joni Mitchell’s music while writing this play, hoping to mirror the singer-songwriter’s intricate style of observation in the composition of his own characters. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called Significant Other “a tenderly unromantic romantic comedy,” and praised Harmon for expanding upon classic tropes in a way that makes them appreciably realistic. Isherwood exclaims that Harmon’s writing “is so witty and insightful that even jokes about bridesmaid’s dresses feel revivified.” Ben Brantley—also of the Times—hailed the play’s mixture of “sitcom breeziness and aching pathos,” likening Harmon to one of his heroes—writer Wendy Wasserstein. Significant Other was commended as one of the New York Times’ Top Ten Productions of 2015.

Other credits include the 2015 New York Spring Spectacular for the Radio City Rockettes, in which Harmon investigated technology and live theatrical experience. Skintight—which premiered Off-Broadway at Roundabout in May 2018—examines youth, beauty, and sex when divorcée Jodi returns to her father’s house only to find him enthralled with a gay adult film performer many years her dad’s junior. Ivanka—an adaptation of Harmon’s beloved Medea which centers around America’s current first family—received readings nationwide on the eve of the 2016 election, including at Studio Theatre.

Harmon’s most recent work, Admissions, is “not really about applying to college.” Rather, the admissions process to elite prep schools and universities in the United States is, according to Harmon, merely a “container” for the play’s broader questions. Admissions is “an examination of whiteness: white privilege, white power, white anxiety, white guilt, all of it...this play is trying to hold up a mirror to white liberalism, while remaining very conscious of the fact that this is just one narrow slice of a much larger conversation.” Admissions won an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the 2018 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, and the 2018 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

From influences as far flung as Euripides’ family tragedy, Joni Mitchell’s wealth of emotion and perceptive power, and Wendy Wasserstein’s wit and poignancy, Harmon has discovered his own unique voice, finding balance between tonal poles—brutal yet tender, funny yet heartbreaking, macrocosmic but inwardly focused. Currently under commission with Manhattan Theatre Club, Harmon will likely continue to write plays which heuristically attempt to address modern life’s complexities and flaws, all while embracing the redemptive side of humanity.

—Alexandra Kennedy