Theater Review: Significant Other Needs to Commit

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Photo: Joan Marcus

The only previous work the young playwright Joshua Harmon mentions in his current program bio is Bad Jews, a big hit for the Roundabout in 2012 and 2013. That terrific comedy, tight and furious as its main character’s hair, is now the third-most-produced play in the United States. Less auspicious, and left uncited, is the script Harmon provided earlier this year for Radio City’s New York Spring Spectacular, a monumental assault on human decency, albeit with Rockettes. I’m relieved to report that his new play, Significant Other, back at the Roundabout, lands closer to Bad Jews than to the Spectacular — but some of the latter has infected the former, and the result, although smart and even touching at times, is overblown. 

This starts with the premise: A gay guy suffers crippling sadness as his three best gal pals get bitten by the marriage bug, leaving him to deal with his loneliness alone. Is this a real problem? Even if it is, it isn’t enough of one to hang a play on, so Harmon has to pump up the pressure by making the gay guy a problem in himself. At first, Jordan Berman, 29, seems functional, even desirable: cute, witty, thoughtful, employed. But when dealing with his too-neatly-differentiated trio of nonsexual soul mates — one warm, one self-involved, one depressed — he’s so unflaggingly supportive in the first act you know he will have to break big in the second. Luckily we first get a lovely portrait, in the form of Gideon Glick, of this hopelessly self-sabotaging wreck of a romantic. (Glick, with his posable artist’s mannequin body, has no trouble physicalizing Jordan’s twisted emotions.) We moan for him as he reveals way too much in an email to a crush — the women all tell him not to send it — and we (well, some of us) sigh with him when he describes the man’s body, which he’s memorized in loving detail: “His shoulders are kind of narrow but they’re sweet and round at the top, almost like knees.” 

Unfortunately, nice or even exquisite writing doesn’t make a play, as the trumped-up climax in the second act proves. (In a relentlessly self-pitying aria, Jordan squanders every ounce of sympathy he’s painstakingly collected over the preceding two hours.) Part of the problem is that Harmon’s themes are so thin and vaporous; another part is that they are so frequently and baldly stated. It’s not enough to get one pass through the engagement party–bridal shower–bachelorette party–wedding trail of tears; we have to get three. Each woman in turn has her chance to demonstrate the smug condescension of the recently single toward those left behind: “There are all these emotions you can’t access when you’re alone,” says Vanessa, the formerly depressed one. I suppose these repetitions are meant to suggest a vise tightening around Jordan’s loneliness, but after a while I began to feel the vise tightening around my temples instead. Indeed, it’s a relief whenever Harmon grafts a scene of Jordan visiting his grandmother into the story, not just because those scenes are beautifully observed (and because Barbara Barrie is beautiful in the part) but because they are at least different. Still, they aren’t very germane because there’s not much in Significant Other to be germane to. 

When a play lacks dramatic tension, a director can only supply so much; you can’t get a grip on gas. But in this case, oddly, the production, by Trip Cullman, seems at pains to emphasize rather than disguise the inertia. More than once we get long, wordless stretches of dancing and lip-synching at parties, and too much time is spent moving the characters around the stage. (The scenes don’t so much flow from one to the next as commute.) In a movie, or even on television, such passages might convey new information, but onstage without a close-up camera they convey only what we already know: that time is passing. In this sense Significant Other feels more anthropological than theatrical, as if we were watching raw footage of adorable-looking but actually vicious creatures pursuing odd mating rituals in their natural environments. The actors — who also include Lindsay Mendez, Sas Goldberg, and Carra Patterson as Jordan’s friends, and John Behlmann and Luke Smith as a variety of husbands and crushes and dates — all know how to pull that off; they give hilariously detailed, full-body impersonations. But not everything fully alive is fully fascinating. And nature documentaries aren’t plays.  

Significant Other is at the Laura Pels through August 16.