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He Plays Well With Eras

Experimental playwright Jordan Harrison bends time on stage.

Joan Marcus

THE MUSIC IN THEM: In Doris to Darlene, one tune is transfixing in three time periods: when Wagner creates it for Tristan und Isolde, when it becomes a ’60s pop hit, and when a contemporary high school boy falls in love with both.

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By Ramin Setoodeh

Jordan Harrison’s play Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine should probably come with a cautionary note for the viewer, too. This is no conventional play. It’s separated into three different parts—like The Hours, only with more men. The first section, set in Germany during the 1860s, shows Richard Wagner as he struggles to write his next opera. The second story, in 1960s America, features a teen pop idol named Doris who hits it big with a song that uses Wagner’s Liebestod melody and has an affair with her producer, who resembles Phil Spector. Finally, the play cuts to the present day, with a high school boy who listens to Doris’s old song as he develops a crush on his male opera teacher. Doris’s grandmother is played by a man and her prom date is played by an actress who’s supposed to be a man. And all the characters stop to talk about themselves in the third person. “Several of my plays use third-person language, but this is the first one where every character has that power,” says Harrison, ’99. “It feels novelistic, something that lets us cross time easily, that lets us swoop in.”

Audiences have been crossing Jordan Harrison at regional theaters since 2003, when he earned his MFA in playwriting at Brown. With the help of several prestigious fellowships, he’s had full productions of a half dozen plays—remarkable success for someone who’s only 30—on such respected stages as Actors Theatre in Louisville, Illusion Theatre in Minneapolis and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In December, Harrison made his off-Broadway debut with Doris to Darlene, and in January, he’s got a downtown New York production of Amazons and Their Men, a 2006 play in which a Leni Riefenstahl-like movie director tries to film her version of the Trojan War.

“I’ve been reading Jordan for a long time,” says Tim Sanford, PhD ’85, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, a nonprofit theater in Manhattan that devotes itself to contemporary American playwrights. “He’s one of the handful of exciting new writers. He creates these worlds that are—how do you describe it?—cerebral playgrounds.”

Sanford isn’t the only one who has trouble describing a Harrison play. Each usually starts a bizarre premise. Harrison’s first play, You Will Burn, written when he was a senior at Stanford and never performed, was about some time-traveling terrorists and “a sect of nuns that worshipped Eve by eating apples,” Harrison says. His first two produced plays, written at Brown, were Kid Simple: A radio play in the flesh, about a girl who “invents a hearing machine, for hearing when people are lying,” and The Museum Play, about a “man who puts his ex-boyfriend in a museum to preserve his memories.” Finn in the Underworld, which debuted at Berkeley Rep in 2005, was a “psychosexual ghost story inspired by Henry James.” In Act a Lady, the men in a Prohibition-era Midwestern town put on a drag show about the French Revolution. Gender-bending at the Elks fundraiser has unexpected effects, not the least of which is a female accordion player’s observation that the show must have been Art because “I went somewhere and I’m still not sure I totally came back.”

Although Harrison is young, he was in equally young company with Doris to Darlene at Playwrights Horizons, which is having an uncharacteristic season. Most of its shows are by writers in their 20s and 30s. Sanford says that when he was selecting the strongest plays for this season, scripts by veterans lost out to the new crop. (Harrison is the company’s first former intern to have a show produced there.) It used to be that playwrights had to open in New York before they could make a name for themselves. But these days theater groups around the country are nurturing more writers like Harrison. “In the younger writers, there’s kind of a fearlessness when it comes to experimentation, not worrying so much about how it’s going to be received,” Sanford says, “and ironically, it’s been received well.”

More experimental drama also fares better with audiences in today’s attention-deficit YouTube generation. “We’re at a point where there’s more interest in the young people with new and fresh ideas,” says Sally Oswald, Harrison’s classmate at Brown, who edits a journal with him called Play: A Journal of Plays.

Harrison lists Tom Stoppard as an influence, and the word-drunk and topic-omnivorous Harrison probably could pass as a character in one of Stoppard’s plays. He came to Stanford from Bainbridge Island near Seattle hoping to be an actor. As a freshman, he met his best friend, Sage Van Wing, while roaming the halls of FloMo, looking for a pair of clippers to shave his head. “He had sort of floppy long hair, trying to cover his receding hairline, that didn’t look so good,” Van Wing, ’99, remembers. She later became his off-campus roommate and convinced him to try playwriting. He certainly can be neurotic enough to fit the writer stereotype. Over coffee, he constantly leans forward to see what notes are being taken about him, and then settles back, lopsided, like he doesn’t know what to do with his weight. “That’s the one thing they remember in interviews,” Harrison says, slipping into the third person for a moment, like a character from Doris to Darlene. “He was sitting really strangely; we almost didn’t give him the job.”

On the first night of the Doris to Darlene previews in late November, he was weeping to himself in the back row when the curtain closed. Just don’t ask him about that. “I wasn’t crying!” he cries. “Let’s go with, I was misty-eyed. The ending”—a realization of lost love in all the play’s time periods—“makes me verklempt.”

Harrison, who now lives in New York, can’t exactly explain how he comes up with his ideas. Sometimes he’s inspired by knickknacks, like an old slang dictionary at a yard sale, or his childhood interests, like the ’60s girl groups who were models for Darlene. He writes in bursts (a first draft could take three weeks, or 23 weeks), often caffeinated. He recently was awarded a $21,000 grant by the National Arts Club and he’s working on a musical based on H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man.

He has toyed with the idea of writing a book, but that’s not likely to happen. “The boundaries help me, that [a play] has to take place in two hours. When I think of all the things that can happen in a novel, it’s a scary amount of freedom.” Maybe he has reason to be concerned. A Jordan Harrison play is like an overstuffed sandwich: any bigger might be a hazard.

RAMIN SETOODEH, ’04, is an associate editor at Newsweek.  

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