What is Jordan Berman’s problem? He’s 28, adorkably gay, and gainfully employed at an advertising agency. His trio of college besties — Kiki, Vanessa, and Laura — coo over him like a purse puppy. When they each, in turn, get married, he reads Edna St. Vincent Millay at their weddings, which in my experience is the best thing to do at such events. Sure, he’s been unlucky in love, but with all his titanic whingeing about it, you begin to suspect it’s his own damn fault. He’s a drama queen.
If only Significant Other, which opened tonight on Broadway, were as dramatic. But although Joshua Harmon’s sour comedy has many fine supporting qualities — wit, a neat structure, lacerating dialogue, and a clutch of terrific performances from a cast led by Gideon Glick — they don’t have very much to support. This even though the production has greatly improved since its Off Broadway incarnation at the Roundabout in 2015, when I called it overblown. Harmon has subtly tightened the script and made the characters a bit more plausible since then. Kiki, in particular, who sometimes seemed in Sas Goldberg’s hilarious performance too much of a self-involved idiot to take seriously, has been given rounder edges. (Still, despite working in HR for a 400-person firm, she has just learned what “concur” means.) And Vanessa, the depressed one, for whom marriage previously seemed just another sad agenda item she’d managed to check off, no longer cruelly tells Jordan on her wedding night that “there are all these emotions you can’t access when you’re alone.” As thoughtfully played by Rebecca Naomi Jones — the only new cast member — she now finds enough joy in wedlock, or at least enough comfort, to make it seem vaguely worthy of Jordan’s envy. Meanwhile, the director Trip Cullman has tightened the staging tremendously, vanishing the dead spots, and reshaping the long, repeated scenes of bridal showers, engagement parties, and post-vow dinner-dances so they offer more emotional information than they did.
I’m sorry to say that, despite all the tightening, and all the emotion, Significant Other is still a lot like one of those rituals: a happy occasion, somehow, yet loud, tiresome, and — at two hours and 15 minutes — overlong. A lot of admirably strong writing has been lavished on amazingly small matters. It’s not just the circular plot that’s at fault, though it’s frustrating, for instance, that Jordan’s crazy crush on a hunky co-worker named Will (perfectly balanced on the border of is-he-or-isn’t-he by John Behlman) is so elaborated in Jordan’s fantasy but so quickly discarded without resolution for the audience. (After Jordan’s abject email confession of love, we merely learn that Will has gotten a new job in Queens, which is the modern playwriting equivalent of being shipped out to war in a ’40s weepie.) It also remains a problem that the play has no development, just a series of motifs signifying Jordan’s abandonment by each of his friends. It’s a theme-and-variations story, never moving forward but rather squeezing tighter, like a vise or a headache.
There’s a brave kind of truth in that: It’s how Joshua Harmon knows Jordan Berman to be. (Their names suggest quasi-autobiography.) The question I have is why the passive-except-when-he’s-fitful Jordan is his protagonist. In Harmon’s huge Off Broadway hit Bad Jews, he created in Daphna Feygenbaum a memorable main character who was credible because she adhered to a rule of theatrical equilibrium: She was as awful from the audience’s point of view as she was from the other characters’. You felt the play was telling the truth. (You also felt she was influencing the action.) In Significant Other, Jordan comes off as a very dear and adored young man, powerfully sympathetic to others and thus powerfully drawing sympathy to himself. But this is entirely the doing of Gideon Glick, who here (as in The Harvest recently) proves himself to be a bard of awkwardness, turning anxious tics and self-doubt into a poetry of the underloved. Look at Jordan without Glick, though, and you find someone quite different: a loner by choice, peripheral to everyone, and a narcissistic monster, way worse even than Kiki. In the climactic scene — climactic not because it really changes anything but because the two visions of Jordan temporarily equalize — he explodes at Laura, the best of his besties, in an aria of hatefulness that finally lets you hate him back. You are left feeling as abused as poor Laura, touchingly played by Lindsay Mendez, and the play cannot recover.
Surely Harmon, at this late date, isn’t asking us to excuse such histrionics on the basis of the homophobia there is no evidence that Jordan has ever suffered. Nor does Harmon allow us to see Jordan as merely spoiled, though the play drops a few footnotes to that effect. (His Nana — Barbara Barrie, again giving a lovely performance — was already married six years, with two kids, at 28.) But smartly citing themes is not the same as dramatizing them, and what we actually see happening in the play is exactly two things: a satire of Bridezilladom as an almost biological inevitability, like menarche, and an exploration of gay singleness as a random curse that can never be undone. Neither of these things is true.
Or have I, in my dotage, with my husband and family long since achieved, hardened my heart to the pain of being young and gay and single, of watching all the straights around me couple up and wondering whether I would ever have the privilege of slavishly aping their heteronormativity? I don’t think so. Glick’s vivid performance easily brought all those awful feelings back, and I admit to tearing up as he suffered. But much as I remember the hopelessness and reactionary anxiety that Significant Other purveys, I also remember feeling, even at the time, that my woes were not very big in the world, not very honorable, and certainly not dramatic. They were my problem, fit at most for an overwrought letter or a purple poem. To make anything bigger of them was to make too much of them.
Significant Other is at the Booth Theatre.