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Playwright Joshua Harmon burst onto the scene in 2012 with Bad Jews, a charged debate on faith and family fueled by caustic humor. A breakout hit of Roundabout Theatre Company’s fertile “Underground” strand for emerging artists, it went on to be among the most widely produced new American plays of recent seasons. His follow-up serio-comedy, Significant Other, shows that Harmon is no one-hit wonder. Reflecting on the anxieties of 21st century gay male singledom with wit, warmth and the unmistakable pang of personal experience, this is a honey of a play that’s been buffed to a brilliant sheen in director Trip Cullman‘s snappy production.
It’s a small miracle that Harmon hasn’t yet been lured into a more lucrative career writing for television, but until that happens, it’s entirely to the benefit of theatergoers hungry for mainstream work that brings intelligence, humor and penetrating observation to relatable contemporary characters. Most of us, gay or straight, will recognize something of ourselves at some point in our lives in relationship-starved Jordan Berman, played with expert timing, adorably gangling physicality and an aching heart by Gideon Glick.
The play’s title seems a throwback to the late ‘80s, when that expression — a midrange alternative between the businesslike “partner” and the more juvenile-sounding “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” — entered the relationship lexicon in a big way. But in a certain ironic light, the central character echoes the morose lonely gay of even earlier decades. Does anyone remember the maudlin Montgomery, pining for an unattainable love and strumming guitar by a neon-lit Times Square apartment window in Fame? Aww. Plus he was ginger, which made it even sadder.
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Jordan, while he’s 27 and single with a small parcel of neuroses and a mild depressive streak, is thankfully not the usual whiny outsider. He’s smart and funny, comfortably out, enviably located in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment and gainfully employed at an ad agency where he’s by no means the only gay in the village. But he’s looking for romance, not hookups, and he cushions himself against his failure to find relationship material by seeking refuge in the affections of his three best girlfriends. That sharply individualized trio includes his self-absorbed, bluntly opinionated co-worker Kiki (Sas Goldberg); unapologetic cynic Vanessa (Carra Patterson), who works in publishing; and cuddly schoolteacher Laura (Lindsay Mendez), Jordan’s surrogate soulmate.
There’s also his 80-something Grandma (Barbara Barrie, in an understated performance to be cherished), a sweet old dear still capable of sharing gentle wisdom and concern through the fog of her diminishing faculties. When she ruffles Jordan by idly contemplating how she might end her life before complete decline takes hold, she shrugs it off, saying: “I would never do anything. I just like knowing my options.”
Harmon and Cullman provide amusing punctuation for the inevitable process by which Jordan’s life support system is cut off, thus forcing him to take an honest look at himself. Each bachelorette party, wedding or baby shower is accompanied by an invigorating blast of pop from the main characters’ carefree youth (Whitney Houston, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Lee Ann Womack, etc.), celebrating sentiments from which Jordan finds himself increasingly excluded. He believes he has the secret to life — “it’s pretty simple: find someone to go through it with” — but not necessarily the right tools to make that happen.
Much of the first-act comedy is driven by Jordan’s obsessive pursuit of Will (John Behlmann), a chiseled hunk from the office whose sexuality, like his openness to friendship, remains ambiguous. “You are giving all your power away to someone who you don’t even know if he deserves it,” warns Kiki. “Calm. Down.” That doesn’t stop Jordan from falling into the black hole of social media, cyberstalking Will while fast-forwarding to a life of domestic bliss together.
The agony of hearing his over-eager texts or his panicked voicemails to the girls for help, and watching him wrestle with whether or not to send an epic email that would scare off any potential candidate for romance yields laughs that will be bittersweet and awkwardly familiar for many in the audience. The confusion of an “Is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-date?” scenario, in particular, is a classic. Loneliness and longing in our hyper-connected world is not new territory, but Harmon makes it fresh and surprisingly affecting.
The play brings subtlety and nuance to factors beyond Jordan’s romantic ineptitude and immaturity. Without judging, Harmon also offers an honest examination of the hidden clauses and imbalances in friendships between women and gay men, illustrated by the fact that though Jordan invariably is invited to perform a reading at his girlfriends’ nuptials, he’s never a core member of the bridal party.
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In many ways, Significant Other is a perceptive gay male variation on female-centric screen comedies about corrosive relationship envy, like Bridesmaids or Bachelorette, the latter based on a play. (Its movie references include a goofy wedding pas de trois that seems a homage to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.)
The climactic showdown here is between Jordan and Laura, who initially share such a pessimistic view of their relationship prospects that they pledge to be one another’s fallback option. When that plan gets revealed as empty talk, the resulting friction yields an angry aria that’s a little too transparent in showing the playwright’s hand at work. But Glick and Mendez play the scene with so much raw feeling, churning up selfishness, guilt and resentment at the expense of rationality, that it feels true to life.
Harmon’s writing is stuffed with memorable one-liners and astute situational humor, but it’s never glib, observing its hyper-articulate characters with unfailing generosity. That makes the poignancy of the outcome all the more resonant. Is Jordan finally growing up? Will he be better equipped for a real relationship? Or has he been ready all along and just been unlucky in love? The play doesn’t provide tidy answers, but it does assemble an authentic portrait of emotional isolation and yearning that emerges organically out of the light-hearted early action.
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Mark Wendland‘s cleverly compartmentalized two-level set aids tremendously in the expedited scene transitions that are a Cullman specialty, zipping from home to office to pool party to nightclub, etc., across a seamless span of two or three years. And Japhy Weideman‘s lighting makes splendid use of a handful of grand chandeliers way up high in the ceremonial scenes.
The entire ensemble, which includes Behlmann and Luke Smith multitasking as various male characters, is excellent. The three girls are especially winning: Goldberg is hilarious, shaping an endearing monster out of a borderline horror; Patterson projects an appealing Maya Rudolph vibe with her deadpan sourness; and Mendez is lovely as the most conflicted of the three friends, who understands Jordan’s pain but rightly refuses to feel bad about her own shot at happiness. As for the disarming Glick (who previously impressed in Spring Awakening and Speech and Debate), if he finds himself pining for a date after this, he’s clearly not loitering long enough at the stage door.
Cast: Gideon Glick, Lindsay Mendez, Sas Goldberg, Carra Patterson, Barbara Barrie, John Behlmann, Luke Smith
Director: Trip Cullman
Playwright: Joshua Harmon
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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