'Sniffing poppers during sex? Such a cliche!' How Homos reinvented gay drama

In the opening scene of Jordan Seavey’s funny and fragmented four-person play Homos, Or Everyone in America, a man known only as “the Writer” is browsing in Lush when the sales assistant asks if he’s shopping for a “special someone”. With that remark an emotional bomb, rather than the bath-time variety, seems to explode, and the play is built from the resulting rubble of non-chronological memories. The action leaps back and forth between his breakup with his boyfriend (“the Academic”) to their boozy first date, from arguments bristling with jealousy to a debate about threesomes. “Thank God no one will ever hear this conversation,” the Academic says, distilling the impression that we are eavesdropping on uninhibited intimacies not intended for the stage.

The 37-year-old, Brooklyn-born playwright bashed out a frenzied first draft in 2011, then honed it while waiting five years for the New York premiere. “As you write it, you’re instantly thinking, ‘OK, we’re ready to go, get me my Tony!’” he says over iced tea in a cafe near London’s Finborough theatre, where Homos is making its European premiere. “But the time it took helped the emotions and politics of the play simmer.” For all its narrative experimentation and verbal candour, an air of nostalgia pertains to its pre-Grindr world of faintly embarrassed online interaction (“Friendster for ever!”).

Seavey regards the piece as a bridge between coming-out stories such as Beautiful Thing and Torch Song Trilogy and “those yet-to-be-written plays about who we are. The characters are about to experience legislative equality in the form of marriage and I see it as asking, ‘Where are we now?’” He gets frustrated, though, when people ask whether it’s a play for gays or straights. “It’s a boy-meets-boy story. It’s for everyone.”

‘Get me my Tony award!’ … Jordan Seavey. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Homos was inspired by Seavey’s experience of visiting an ex-partner who had been the victim of a hate crime. “I have some degree of liberal obliviousness, but I’m also a little cynical, so I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the attack. It’s the homophobia that you know is out there but you try to ignore.”

The daily micro-shocks of witnessing his friend’s recovery informed the structure of the play, with its unheralded temporal jolts. “You weren’t able to predict how he would look or be each day, and I think that’s why a lot of the scenes start and end abruptly. I wanted to capture that disorientation.”

Although an act of violence forms part of the drama, Seavey is equally concerned with the internalisation of homophobia. He dramatises acutely the way gay people tend to police themselves in even the most private situations to avoid inflaming prejudice. It isn’t only that they might curb their campness; the Writer and the Academic worry also about whether sniffing poppers during sex is ratifying cliches, and if simply noticing an attractive 16-year-old upholds the homophobic stereotype of the gay man as paedophile. No wonder there is such conflict in the play surrounding the idea of community.

“All of the discussion of community was sparked by the feeling I’d get around Pride. You go to the parade and you think cheerfully, ‘Oh my God, I’m part of this!’ Then for many of us it would become, ‘Oh my God, I’m part of this?’ The Writer feels he’s in this community but also not, and the play switches around constantly, too.” He feels ambivalent about the place of queerness in society. “I don’t want to be the old stodgy person saying, ‘We’re not the same as straight people!’

However, the empowerment anthems every female pop star is singing – the whole you-are-the-rainbow thing – is a sentiment gay people pioneered, and it’s been co-opted by straight culture. The play says that life is more nuanced than just, ‘Speak your truth.’ There are a lot of queer people being marginalised, held back, beaten up, killed. That reality has not gone away just because the mainstream is embracing queerness.”

‘This isn’t The Boys in the Band’ … Huntley and McEntire circle each other.

‘This isn’t The Boys in the Band’ … Huntley and McEntire circle each other. Photograph: Alex Brenner

Homos is peppered with references to the gay canon – the Writer is rebuked for thinking he’s Larry Kramer, author of the Aids drama The Normal Heart, while someone else says: “This isn’t The Boys in the Band”. It seems to reflect the process of its own making and acknowledge the pitfalls of writing a play with gay themes. (Even the title is a partial riposte to Kramer’s novel Faggots.) It also contains some mischievous autobiographical fretting: “At least I’m not gonna steal all this shit verbatim, you parasite!” the Academic tells the Writer during one bust-up. Seavey looks bashful. “I like to think there’s something innately queer about how it playfully dares you to wonder how autobiographical it is,” he says.

Seavey is shopping around a screenplay of Homos and it is easy to imagine the Nicolas Roeg-style storytelling patterns lending themselves to cinema. For now, he’s happy the play is receiving its European premiere in London: he spent a semester there in 2002, during which he saw a Royal Court production of three shorter pieces by Caryl Churchill, who has had a strong influence on his work.

“I wrote to her, gushing young fanboy that I was, saying she had completely changed my view of theatre. And she replied! I have it framed on my wall.” I inquire after the contents of the note, and he wrinkles his nose. “The handwriting’s not that legible,” he says. “But at least she wrote back.”

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