Last season, Joshua Harmon made his professional New York playwriting debut when Bad Jews was selected for production by Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground program. The no-holds-barred dramedy—which stars Tracee Chimo as a "real Jew" who clashes with her cousin and his new non-Jewish girlfriend—was a hit, and has now moved to the larger Laura Pels Theatre, where it opens for round two on October 3. Raised in a suburb of New York, Harmon studied dramatic writing at Northwestern and was inspired to pen Bad Jews after attending a service in which grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were invited to speak. For Broadway.com, Harmon shares the touching story of how his family helped him believe in his talent and in the worth of Bad Jews.
Tracee Chimo, Philip Ettinger, Molly Ranson and Michael Zegen are the dream-team cast who star in my play Bad Jews. Every time I watch them, I am awed by their enormous talents. I know my play could not be in more capable hands. But they were not the first people to bring my play to life. That distinction goes to two unusual suspects, and I'd like to acknowledge them here.
I finished the first draft of Bad Jews in April 2011, years after I'd first started to think about the play. I was living in Atlanta, having won a fellowship from the National New Play Network to be the playwright-in-residence at a theater called Actor's Express. Each year, NNPN selects three emerging writers to work at different regional theaters across the country, and in the spring, they bring everyone together in my hometown, New York, to have readings of their new plays at The Lark.
The plays were due to The Lark via e-mail on a Friday at 12 PM, and my flight was at 3 PM. I worked right up until the deadline, but the moment I hit "send" I started to have a panic attack. I think a panic attack is a natural response to finishing a draft of a new play, but this one was worse than most. I got stuck in traffic driving to the airport, so I called my friend Libby and proceeded to flip out. I used a lot of unprintable words and said horrible things about myself, far worse than anything any of my characters say to each other in my play. In my memory, the windows were down and everyone around me just stared, perhaps a little nervous to be on the road next to someone so seemingly unbalanced.
I flew to New York and went to my parents' house. My little sister was away at college, but my middle sister was home, and so the four of us had dinner. Despite the celebratory nature of dinner, made in honor of my recent birthday, I was feeling really down. The residency ended in two months, and all I had to show for it was this very strange little Jewish play. What was going to happen to it? Would anyone ever want to see it? Or had I just wasted this residency? Why did I think I could be a writer in the first place? What was I going to do with the rest of my life? And what exactly was the meaning of life? And also... well, you get the idea.
Near the end of dinner, my Dad asked, "So, is this play any good?" and I don't know what came over me, but I reached into my backpack, pulled out the copy I'd printed and said, "I don't know, Dad. You tell me." And somehow, my lawyer-father and psychology-grad-student-sister morphed into actors, and we began to read.
My mom was planning to come to the reading at The Lark, and didn't want to hear it beforehand, so she went upstairs. But my father and my sister and I sat around the table and read the play aloud to each other. And though it was raw, and sloppy, and in disarray, it was also exciting. At that point, it was almost irrelevant whether any external validation ever came. What I needed most was to feel that I wasn't completely insane for wanting to be a writer. All writers are fragile, but young writers are especially so. Having the weight of my family behind me was essential; reading my play for me, taking me seriously, was an unrepayable gift my family gave to me that night.
Since then, Roundabout produced the play in their 62-seat Black Box theater, and it has now moved upstairs to the 424-seat Laura Pels Theatre. Watching four tremendous actors give their all night after night to a roomful of strangers who have surrendered 100 minutes of their lives is a strange new sensation to which I'm still not accustomed, but which is deeply moving, to say the least.
But I will forever carry with me the memory of that first reading, the lone witness to my sister's bravura performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, sitting around our dining room table, as the evening turned to night and the Haber household came to life for the first time in the warm interior of my family's home, in the suburban environs of New York, just a few miles from where the play would eventually find a home of its own.