Writing a story ain’t easy. And writing dialogue is a bitch. But that’s something New York playwright Josh Conkel doesn’t really have a problem with. His characters spew charming, degrading, and most of all, truthful lines with ease. We all laugh, uncomfortably, maybe, at the issues we ourselves often face. Whether its loneliness or heartbreak, or the simple need to be heard and understood, Josh puts these human elements at the center of his characters. We feel with them, and for them. He gives cadence to the kooky, all the while filling the narrative with an important…dare we say…message.
With his latest piece, “I Wanna Destroy You,” which just wrapped its Off-Broadway run in NYC this past weekend, he takes no shortcuts. The characters are full of precise observations, calling out unfortunate aspects of gay culture, sexism, classism, and the hideous American idealism of what it means to be a “success.” The main characters, couple Beau and Mick, let it rain, and no one walks away unscathed, audience included.
I interviewed Josh just before the play was set to end. He has some insightful things to add not only to the backend of the play’s story, but just about life in the city, and in general. This is what he had to say:
What inspired you to write this play? I think it was twofold. First of all, I was sort of tired of the gay sidekick trope I saw everywhere. Every TV show and movie seemed to contain a sassy gay friend for the lead female character and this character seemed to serve no purpose but to say bitchy, funny things. We never got to see their lives, their loves, their hopes. Second, for years I’ve been obsessed with gays as outlaws, as terrorists, as radicals. I’ve always wanted to write a queer version of The Legend of Billie Jean and still might. I just combined the two impulses in what I hoped would be a sweet and funny love story.
With the exception of Hal, which character do you relate to the least?
Probably Cecile. She’s based on my old boss, who is the most sociopathic human being I’ve ever met. I almost put a restraining order against this woman when I left that job and I even went into therapy. When I started writing, I wanted Cecile to be a monster a la The Devil Wears Prada. Over rewrites though, Cecile became a more fleshed out human being. I accidentally gave her a soul. The woman she’s inspired by had none.
You often write closure for your characters, and sometimes it’s a happy-ish ending for them. Even the cruel characters get a positive send off a lot of times. Do you believe (most) everyone deserves a sense of peace in the end? I’ve been thinking about this so much because one of the things that the play is “about” is how sensitive we all are and the question: is life just a long process of being broken? There are also all these terrible old people articles about how selfish and entitled millenials are and how they don’t want to work but want nice things anyway. I’m just slightly too old to be a millenial, but I feel them. I had an epiphany recently where I realized that I do feel entitled to happiness, to food, to a living wage, to work/life balance, to respect, to dignity, to happiness. I think all of us are entitled to that. So good for millenials.
In hindsight, what’s the one thing you wish you’d included or took out of this production? (answer optional!)
It’s tough. This is the least “out there” play of mine and for that reason it’s beloved by people who generally aren’t fans of my work and also overlooked by people who typically are fans. Over five years of development, the wild, crazy, weird “Conkel” touches have been stripped away from the script. Like, Mick used to have a Phantom of the Opera face from having tried to deep fry a turkey in their apartment. Also,the other actors used to double as disfigured characters in Mick’s support group for people with fucked up faces. In fact, the original title of the play was Faces in Fagville. The entire process from beginning to end was one of “stripping away.” Sometimes I think Mick’s scar is a dinosaur from the earlier version of the play, but I’m still unsure of that.
The main character, Beau, is informed/inspired by his boyfriend, Mick, throughout the play. Mick is kind of Beau’s ID in some ways. Was that subconscious while writing it, or am I reading into it too much?
You’re not reading too much into that at all. I mean, it’s so obvious to me now but was sub conscious while I was writing. beau is the part of me that wants to fit in, to please, to belong. Mick is the part of me that wants to destroy everything. two sides of the same coin.
The character of Jim is spot on and quite hilarious. He’s initially constructed as a caricature, but has some strong moments of clarity and resolution in the second act. Do you think he encapsulates most gay boy’s journeys in finding out who they are in the world?
A lot of gay gays are uncomfortable with the nelly queen, but not me. I love femme men. I think we, as a community, owe them an incredible debt. Nothing pisses me off more than a gay man saying he likes “masc” or “str8 acting” guys. It’s like, fuck you and your internalized homophobia.
I think Jim’s presence does two things for the play: 1) He forces gay men in the audience to examine their own internalized homophobia. 2) He plays a trick on straight people in the audience who think they’re getting one thing, but actually getting another thing.
And finally, what’s in the ketchup bottle? I know that’s not a new dress every night. I’m actually not sure how they make it. I think there’s chocolate and dish soap and other stuff in it.
“I Wanna Destroy You” has just ended it’s first Off-Broadway run, but don’t worry – it’ll make an appearance on a stage near you soon enough. And when it does, see it or be destroyed.