One is the loneliest number in Harmon’s ‘Significant Other’
NEW YORK — Joshua Harmon has always considered himself a quiet observer — wry, with an acerbic sense of humor, but an observer nonetheless.
“I feel like I’m the kid who liked to sit in the back of the classroom and whisper or pass notes with snarky comments to somebody next to me,” he says with a laugh. “That’s how I see the world — from the back of a classroom.”
That penchant for biting commentary suffuses Harmon’s fiercely funny yet poignant plays. In “Bad Jews,” the loud, opinionated “über-Jew” Daphna zings her cousin Liam’s WASPy girlfriend for looking like she was “live water-birthed in a Talbot’s.” In “Significant Other,” which SpeakEasy Stage Company is premiering in Boston beginning Friday, the neurotic Jordan Berman snaps at his best friend Laura, “Hearing you say I have obsessive tendencies makes me feel like I need to go to the vet and be put down.”
For an aspiring playwright who wants to understand what makes people tick — their vulnerabilities, hopes, and fears — the back of the classroom proved to be a good training ground. It also gave Harmon a healthy appreciation for smart-aleck sidekicks and eccentric supporting characters. Indeed, in both “Bad Jews,” which SpeakEasy produced in 2014, and “Significant Other,” Harmon has foregrounded characters of a type who are often relegated to the sidelines.
“It is exciting to me to take somebody who in a traditional narrative gets to have the quickie part on the side, who makes a few little wisecracks and gets a couple of laughs, and make that person just as alive as everybody else in the story,” he says between sips of coffee at a cafe near his apartment on the Upper West Side. “It forces the audience to engage with a character that they don’t traditionally engage with.”
In “Significant Other,” Jordan is a Manhattan-dwelling singleton navigating dating, romance, and friendship with his three best girlfriends, Kiki, Vanessa, and Laura. The action begins at a bachelorette party for Kiki, the crass, self-absorbed firecracker who’s soon to be married. While Jordan prattles on about cyberstalking his sexually ambiguous co-worker Will, hoping to ask him out on a date, Vanessa and Laura lament the disastrous states of their respective love lives. Before long, though, Vanessa and Laura are coupling off, while Jordan finds himself alone and fearful that he’ll never find love, which causes him to lash out and spiral further into loneliness.
“Jordan,” Harmon says, “is the quintessential gay, neurotic, 20-something Jew in New York City.”
A type Harmon might be intimately familiar with? “Perhaps,” he replies, with a laugh. “I’ve met one or two.”
Yet despite any surface similarities, he says the character is not an autobiographical creation, nor is the play a memoir. But what is true is the emotional transparency of a work in which he draws from questions, fears, and anxieties that roil his own mind.
“Something can begin from a truthful place, but as it moves through development and workshops and rewriting, it changes,” says Harmon, 33.
“So are there things that I drew upon from my own life? Yes. Did I go to a million weddings? Yes. I didn’t write a play about the Tudors or the Ming Dynasty. I wrote about a young guy in New York who goes to a lot of weddings. I didn’t have to do research into the play. But it’s also not my experience.”
Greg Maraio, who’s playing Jordan in the SpeakEasy production, says that “when you play a character that is so close to you and whose lines you’ve said in your own life, you feel completely exposed and vulnerable. Because you’re up there and you’re kind of playing yourself. It’s great because you can draw on real life experiences, but it’s scary because there’s nowhere to hide.”
While “Bad Jews” was the third most-produced play at US regional theaters in the 2014-15 season, according to American Theatre magazine, “Significant Other” marks another step forward for Harmon. After premiering off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company to warm reviews in 2015, that production is poised to transfer to Broadway in February with its original cast intact. (While SpeakEasy is staging its own production, it’s getting a rare shot to produce a play before its Broadway bow.)
“I think most playwrights coming up hope for an off-Broadway or regional production, and that’s the pinnacle. Broadway legitimately wasn’t a goal or a dream. So I’m still taking it in,” he says.
Initially, Harmon intended to write an epic play about unrequited love through the ages. But over time, the play shifted and “became much more an examination of loneliness and loss and friendship.”
Indeed, Harmon was intrigued by the fact that people are getting married at an older age now — on average in their late 20s. Friendships that predate a marriage are being drawn out further than in the past.
“They’ve become familial. Even the word ‘friend’ sounds sort of casual for how close those relationships can be,” he says. “There is all of this societal pressure to find ‘The One’ and to partner up. But actually there is something that you sacrifice in doing that, which is building these close friendships.”
Interspersed throughout the play are scenes showing Jordan’s tender relationship with his grandmother. Despite her deteriorating memory and own bouts of solitude, she offers pearls of wisdom and a modicum of solace for Jordan.
“Watching the two of them, you realize they are day-to-day living very similar lives,” he says. “But they’re just on different crests of the same wave of loneliness, and they don’t necessarily have the language to be able to say, ‘I’m feeling what you’re feeling, too.’ ”
Harmon’s relationship with his own grandmother was a powerful one. She brought him into the city from Westchester County to see plays. After he saw “A Doll’s House” with Janet McTeer, “I think I became really engaged by plays that are character-driven and that are grappling with some kind of moral question.”
With “Significant Other,” Harmon isn’t wrestling with a moral question exactly but one that is deeply felt and difficult. “How do you make life work for yourself when you feel that you’re not living the life you’re supposed to be living or want to be living? And how do you deal with that when the changes that you need to make are in some ways outside of your control?”
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Sept. 9-Oct. 8. At the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theatre. Tickets: Starting at $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com