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A Funny Play About Sad People

An Interview with “Skintight” Playwright Joshua Harmon

Eli Gelb, Idina Menzel and Will Brittain in the Roundabout Theatre Company producion of Skintight. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Following audience favorites Bad Jews (2015) and Significant Other (2018), playwright Joshua Harmon returns to the Geffen with Skintight. After the first week of rehearsals, Associate Artistic Director Amy Levinson sat down with Harmon to chat about the inspiration behind this play, his collaboration with director Daniel Aukin, and the method behind his plays’ use of humor.

What was the impetus to write this play?

Joshua Harmon: I wanted to write a play about youth while I was still technically young. Oftentimes, stories about youth get told through a nostalgic lens, where someone older is looking backwards. I realized this was the only opportunity I would ever have to write a play about youth from that vantage point. When I started the play, I was still in my 20s, but I didn’t love those years — I sensed from an early age that I would be happier once I got through them, and I was right — so it baffled me that our culture exalted youth when I found that time of life so fraught. But that’s just theme. It wasn’t until I found my way to this family that I found the play. What excited me about the Isaacs was that questions of youth and beauty weren’t just thematic; they fuel the engine of the play. Elliot made his fortune by exploiting and in some cases inventing ideals of American beauty. Jodi is grappling with these issues in a very raw and personal way, and her pain propels her to seek answers. This particular family is far removed from my own experiences (sadly, I didn’t grow up the grandson of a billionaire), but at the end of the day, they’re still a family. Understanding those basic relationships helped me find my way in. And lastly, it gave me a chance to attempt my own version of the traditional American family drama — but to people it with characters who aren’t typical to the genre: a multigenerational queer Jewish family. That’s not something I’d seen before, and I wanted to, so, I wrote it.

“It gave me a chance to attempt my own version of the traditional American family drama — but to people it with characters who aren’t typical to the genre: a multigenerational queer Jewish family. That’s not something I’d seen before, and I wanted to, so, I wrote it.” – Joshua Harmon

You mention the family dynamic — in each of your plays, the families are incredibly difficult and the breakdown in communication is sometimes crippling. But there is always an intense current of love that runs underneath your characters. Is this an intended recurring dynamic for you?

JH: My sense is that most families — most relationships — are not linear. It’s more like being in a washing machine, one second you’re up here, then you’re down on the bottom, bouncing around until forever. I think that happens because each of us carries within us not just our own personal history, but the history of generations. You are the way you are because your mother did x to you, but she only did that because her father treated her the same way but he did that because during his childhood — and on and on. So we carry all this baggage and yet we choose to stay in the room with difficult people. I do believe that choice comes from love. We can be strangely optimistic about family relationships, maybe because we’ve seen a glimmer of something we’re hoping to see again, or we’re momentarily reminded of the love we have for someone and just as we’re feeling hopeful, they break our hearts again. That seems true to me.

Let’s talk about the conversation of youth and beauty in this play. While I know this is completely topical in New York as well, in some ways I feel like this play was written for Los Angeles. How do you feel about bringing this play to an L.A. audience?

JH: It’s funny — I haven’t spent much time out here, but I did come for a week after grad school. We had a showcase in Los Angeles, and the actors performed a showcase that I attended. I remember it being this crazy moment in their lives, when all of the girls had been dieting like crazy and all of the guys had been hitting the gym to get as bulked up as they had ever been. I’d spent the last two years with these actors and knew their talent, and I was sitting in the back behind all the agents and other people watching — someone would come out and if they were really beautiful, you would suddenly hear all of these pencils moving on paper. And if someone came out who wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense, it would be totally quiet. It was just a meat market, and for all of these people who had been honing their craft for years, it was going to come down to a question of beauty. That experience really struck a chord inside me. The value we place on being beautiful — part of it feels bound up somehow on a very fundamental level with what it means to be human, but part of it feels like such a destructive impulse.

You and Daniel Aukin have done three plays together —

JH: Three plays, but six productions —

What is it about the collaboration between the two of you that makes for such great work?

JH: Daniel has a deep respect for the mystery of making a play. There’s no formula — if there were, it would have been patented by now — it really is mysterious. I think some directors, because they’re in a position of authority, feel they must have an answer to everything at all times, which stifles creativity. Daniel is not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But by not assuming he must have all the answers, by not asking people to just hit the target of a preconceived idea, he leaves room for revelation, and discovery, which is thrilling to witness. And the result, I find, has a humanizing effect on the play, so you don’t feel like you’re in an audience watching actors, but a voyeur getting a window into the lives of real people. I feel very, very lucky to be sitting in a room with him.

Your plays are incredibly funny but always counter-balanced with some gut-punches. Is that inherent to your style of storytelling — is the humor your way in?

JH: I’m never making a concerted effort to be funny. With Significant Other, I thought that was the saddest play I’d ever written, so it was shocking when people started laughing. But I guess a lot of it comes from the kind of writing I responded to early on. I know when I was reading Wendy Wasserstein, what thrilled me was that her plays were so funny and then also so deeply felt. It felt like it cost her something to write those plays, like she was working something out and making herself vulnerable. There’s a difference between something that’s funny and a comedy — comedies end at weddings, where everyone is happy. I don’t tend to write those plays. This is a funny play about sad people. Which feels like a very Jewish response to pain. When you’re struggling, you seek humor to find your way out of the situation you’re in.

Idina Menzel as Jodi Isaac in the Roundabout Theatre Company producion of Skintight. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I know that Idina Menzel has been with the play since the beginning. How did she come to be a part of it?

JH: This was a commission for Roundabout and before our first workshop, they asked who I was interested in for the role of Jodi. I said, “Idina Menzel’s the dream, but who could we find who’s like her.” They said, “She’s one of a kind. If you’re interested, we should approach her.” And I thought, yeah, sure, knock yourselves out. But she read it and responded to it, which was so exciting. We did two workshops starting in 2015, then the world premiere last summer. It has been one of the most joyous collaborations with an actor I’ve had. She has an innate understanding of the rhythm and music of the language. She makes it look effortless — of course it’s not — but she’s so keyed into the pain and humor and passion and hurt, in all the right places. It’s a genuine privilege to be in the room, watching her work. And the fact that she wanted to do it again, and that we’ve assembled this incredible cast… There’s a line in the play where someone says, “anything that’s very beautiful only lasts a very short time.” Making this play the first time around was a beautiful experience, but theater is ephemeral — so hard to make, then it vanishes into thin air — so it’s not lost on me what a rare gift it is to extend that beautiful experience just a little bit longer.

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/skintight or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).


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