Every Wednesday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, a young playwright named Joshua Harmon heads to the Juilliard School for his weekly writer’s workshop for plays. Fewer than a dozen students in the highly selective program take a seat in the seminar room, and at the head of the table is veteran playwright Christopher Durang.
Both Durang and Harmon swear theirs is a nurturing, non-backstabbing relationship, but here’s the thing that could cause some dramatic tension: According to a tally by American Theatre magazine, Durang’s comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the non-Shakespeare play, has the most productions in the United States during the 2014-2015 season, while Harmon’s play “Bad Jews” sits two rankings below at No. 3.
“Vanya” will make its Washington debut in April, following a regional premiere earlier this year at Center Stage in Baltimore, but “Bad Jews” is already a runaway hit at Studio Theatre. On Tuesday, the theater announced that the show, which began previews Nov. 6, will run through Jan. 4. Since Nov. 11, every show has been sold out by curtain time, and that’s counting a few folding chairs squeezed into the 200-seat Mead Theater each night, according to a Studio spokeswoman.
“I’m so excited for Joshua,” Durang said Tuesday, speaking by phone from his home in Bucks County, Pa., but getting ready to head into Manhattan for a student production by one of Harmon’s classmates. Durang expected his protege to be there just like any other student playwright who has much to learn, even if the ticket sales and extensions at Studio and other theaters indicate that “Bad Jews,” the script Harmon submitted as his application to Juilliard, is pretty darn good.
“Bad Jews” was first produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in 2013 after Harmon’s agent sent the script off without telling the playwright. The New York Times wrote a rave review, and the play transferred to a larger space for an extended run. Studio is one of seven U.S. theaters that picked up the show for the 2014-2015 season. In Philadelphia, Walnut Street Theatre began “Bad Jews” performances in a small, 100-seat space Oct. 7. When the play started selling out, the theater checked with the actors, found out no one had a “Christmas Carol” production to dash off to, and extended the run just as Studio did.
“Josh has written a play that lets us delight in people tearing each other down while inviting us to examine fault lines in modern American Judaism,” David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, wrote in an e-mail. “That’s a rare thing — a wickedly funny play that starts conversations because it’s about something real.”
None of this fazes Harmon, or entirely registers with him. “I wrote [“Bad Jews”] in total obscurity, not knowing that it would ever get a production,” Harmon said over a latte at Fika, his favorite coffee shop on the Upper West Side. “I thought maybe it would get a reading.”
The title for the play popped into Harmon’s head when he was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, but the plot came to him much later: After the death of their grandfather, three cousins crash at a New York apartment and clash over who should take ownership of a Holocaust-era heirloom.
None of the roles is autobiographical; “I had a perfectly normal relationship with my cousins,” Harmon insists, and that’s believable. He grew up in New York, but frequently traveled to Maryland to visit those “normal” cousins in Columbia. Although the “Bad Jews” script is such that you will laugh so hard that you cry, and by the end, just cry, Harmon seems remarkably placid and doesn’t stand out in a crowded coffee shop. He’s short, with a boyish face that looks much younger than 31.
“Joshua is sensitive and sensible,” Durang surmises. “He’s not exactly a laugh riot in person.”
But that’s often the case with comedic playwrights. In fact, Durang feels that it is true of himself. Student and professor share mild dispositions, and a trajectory of failure followed by success. Harmon failed to get into Juilliard on his first three attempts. When Harmon was finally accepted — and shortly thereafter heard that Roundabout had picked up “Bad Jews” — he was living with his parents and “pretty despondent. I had an MFA and was back where I started, and gearing up for the 10-year winter of my discontent.”
Durang reciprocates by sharing his story of being rejected four times by the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute before the new play development center accepted “History of the American Film.”
That was in 1976. In 1977, Arena Stage would be one of three theaters to stage that play’s triple world premiere.
The D.C. theater’s upcoming production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is less auspicious — one of 27 stagings this season. That number puts Durang at No. 1, but he admits to having fewer new plays in the pipeline than Harmon does. Most notably, Harvey Weinstein has tasked the young playwright with writing the book for a new spring Radio City Music Hall variety show featuring the Rockettes. (“They keep telling me to add more live animals,” Harmon says. “It’s crazy.”) He is also working on a commission for Lincoln Center and has another Roundabout show in the works.
Durang says he was not toggling nearly so many plays as a graduate student and encourages Harmon to focus on writing one at a time. So far, though, multitasking does not seem to be detrimental to his scripts, and Harmon keeps coming to class.
While Arena Stage prepares to mount “Vanya” on its Fichandler Stage in the spring, the theater has announced it will turn over its Kogod Cradle to three smaller area troupes that are experimenting with new works.
In January, Wild Root Company will present a workshop of “Room at the End of the Hall,” a two-man play set in a lake house on Cape Cod. Later that month, the scrappy opera troupe UrbanArias will unveil its newly commissioned work called “Blue Viola,” featuring a libretto by Matt Boresi and a score by Peter Hilliard. The Kogod series concludes in February with Moon Lake Productions’ “A House of Glass,” featuring Joshua Morgan as playwright Tennessee Williams. Morgan is currently acting in Arena’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and should be at home sitting at the piano and starring in a musical about the playwright who gave the world “The Glass Menagerie.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.