June 27, 2015

Why "Significant Other" is a Significant Play

The gay best friend has become a stock character in contemporary plays. From The Heidi Chronicles to If/Then, he’s the sidekick there with a shoulder to cry on, a snappy wisecrack to add comic relief but no inner life of his own. Now, the gifted young playwright Joshua Harmon moves that character from the sidelines into the spotlight with his moving new play Significant Other.

Its protagonist is Jordan Berman, a twentysomething gay guy who has three female besties: the lovable narcissist Kiki, the wry cynic Vanessa and the quartet’s salt-of-the-earth anchor Laura, with whom Jordan is so close that they tell one another they will marry if no one else will have them. If this were Oz, Kiki would be the Lion; Vanessa, the Tinman; Laura, the loyal and most beloved Scarecrow but Jordan would have the central role of Dorothy.

The foursome have been BFFs since college, seeing one another through Vanessa’s on-again-off-again affair with a much older married man, Laura’s half-hearted romances and the timorous Jordan’s crush on a hottie who’s just started working at his office. When the play opens, they’re all at Kiki’s bachelorette party, trying to calm her bridezilla behavior and wondering what her marriage will mean for them as a group.

As everyone who has been through the rite of passage into adulthood will know, it will mean that the intimacy of even the tightest bonds between them will loosen, particularly as the others also find partners with whom to share their lives. And that, in turn, will mean feelings of loneliness and abandonment for the person who doesn’t find that special someone.

In this case that person is Jordan, whose only other significant relationship is with his aging grandmother. Jordan tries to be happy for his friends but because this is his play and not theirs, Harmon makes plain the painful cost of being the sidekick, the one who doesn’t get to be the bride, or in this case, even a bridesmaid.  

And yet, this is far from a dour evening in the theater. Harmon, the author of the rightly-praised Bad Jews (click here to read my review) knows how to balance humor and pathos (click here to read a Q&A with him). And he has great fun with the modern day rituals of mating and marrying, from I-like-you-do-you-like me email to the selection of just-for-us songs that couples choose for the first dance at their wedding.

Director Trip Cullman (click here to read an interview with him) has crafted an equally engaging production that moves in almost cinematic fashion, helped immensely by Mark Wendland’s smart, multi-tiered set, which I'll confess looked odd to me at first until my theatergoing buddy Bill pointed out how effortlessly it flowed, with the aid of Japhy Weideman’s astute lighting, from various wedding reception halls, to Jordan’s office, to the different apartments in which he, his grandmother and his friends live.

And the show is perfectly cast. Sas Goldberg as Kiki, Carra Patterson as Vanessa and, most especially, Lindsay Mendez as Laura are so spot-on that you know exactly the kind of woman each character is just by the way they’re sitting in their chairs when the light comes up on the first scene. 

An equal shoutout has to go to John Behlmann and Luke Smith, who play multiple roles and do it so effectively that it took me a while to realize that there weren’t more actors in the show. Meanwhile, the inestimable Barbara Barrie plays the grandmother without resorting to the clichés of being overly-cute or overly-wise as she tries to provide hope for Jordan.

But it’s particularly hard to think of anyone who would make a better Jordan than Gideon Glick, who has made a specialty of these kinds of gawky but endearing characters in shows such as Speech and Debate and Spring Awakening (click here to read a profile of him). 

When Glick's Jordan said “no one has ever told me they loved me,” there was an audible chorus of empathetic sighs from the audience at the performance Bill and I attended. But Significant Other also allows Glick to show other colors—cruelty, selfishness—that help to make his character a fully-fleshed out man. 

Now, there are moments when Glick’s technique abandons him and emotions overtake him so much that it’s difficult to catch all the words pouring out of Jordan. But even so, his performance—and this play—is a testament to the fact that even the most hackneyed character can be made significant.

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