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Significant Other

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gideon Glick and Lindsay Mendez
Photo by Joan Marcus

Joy and pain travel hand in hand in relationships of all stripes, but rarely is the interconnection between the two feelings explored as fully, and as blissfully, as it is in Significant Other. Joshua Harmon's winning new play, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout production, may be about the romantic travails of a gay man in his late 20s, but you don't need to be able to relate directly to its put-upon protagonist, Jordan, to be captivated and cut to the core by the lacerating truths about love and loss it presents.

After all, who hasn't longed for someone, only to see them end up with someone else? Or watch them from afar, unable or unwilling to acknowledge—let alone return—the affection in the first place? Most of us, too, have watched beloved family members wither before our eyes, only to realize too late what they had to offer us that we may never be able to partake of. And it's certainly not uncommon for acquaintances to pair off and marry up, leaving you awash, if only fleetingly, in the insecurity that such a lovely fate is not destined to befall you, too.

As he did with his earlier (and equally electric) Bad Jews, which started off at the Black Box Theatre in fall of 2012 before moving upstairs a year later, Harmon employs an unyielding specificity to unlock a pungent universality. Hence why Jordan, as acted by Gideon Glick and directed with underhanded flair by Trip Cullman, is so vividly drawn. From the first time we meet him, he's clearly one of the gals—when Kiki (Sas Goldberg), the guest of honor at the bachelorette party, Vanessa (Carra Patterson), and Laura (Lindsay Mendez), are talking, he blends into the conversation as well as the background. And when he commiserates with the yet-single Laura, it's pure girl talk floating as much on memories of the past as hopes for an imaginary future.

"I wish we still lived together," he says.

"Grown-ups live alone," Laura responds.

"We're grown-ups. I keep forgetting that."

Gideon Glick and Barbara Barrie
Photo by Joan Marcus

That's not merely a quip, by the way. The struggle to find the permanent adult within a soul that has yet to entirely escape childhood is central to Significant Other, and becomes even more so as it becomes increasingly evident to Jordan (and to us) that Kiki, Vanessa, and even perpetually single Laura are more likely to head to the altar before he is.

Sure, Jordan has eyes on various men, such as a handsome coworker with a history fixation (John Behlmann), or someone he knew from an internship in Chicago who's new to New York City (Luke Smith). But such dalliances tend not to end well, meaning his most intimate contact is frequently with his grandmother, Helene (Barbara Barrie), who understands and relates family history and strives to connect to Jordan, even though the gulf between them sometimes seems as wide as the Grand Canyon. (Considering how rapidly he changes the subject when she brings up children and his social life, she may not even be aware he's gay, though there's at least as much reason to believe she knows far more than she lets on.)

The early aroma of a frothy romantic comedy does not linger long, however. Harmon slowly introduces new, darker elements that hint at a greater toll being exacted on Jordan's being, and one that be shrugged or laughed off as this naturally good-spirited young man is wont to do. Once we enter the furthest reaches of the second act, in fact, it has matured enough to resolve as something sadder and scarier that no wedding invitations or offers for casual sex for Jordan can easily repair. That shift marks the moment that Significant Other moves from good to great, and proves that it digs deeper and aches more than you might initially suspect it capable of doing.

Cullman's energetic, free-flowing staging, on Mark Wendland's urban-memoryscape set and lit alternately with humor, melancholy, and portentousness by Japhy Weideman, plays up the contrasts between thought and action, and inner suppression and outward expression that propel the play forward. And it's aided by expert portrayals from its actors, all of whom could not be more in tune with Harmon's substance or style. I was especially fond of the genial yet bitter bewilderment in which Barrie wrapped Helene; and Mendez, innately an off-kilter charmer who doesn't stumble at all also bringing out all of Laura's angst (and anger when required). But focused, comic performances are the norms here, and everyone's good.

Almost everyone, that is. Though I'll cop to not being much of a fan of Glick's work in the earlier (Spring Awakening) or more flagrantly miscast (the Delacorte Into the Woods) portions of his career to date, as Jordan he's flawless. He layers, with warmth and cynicism, the intricately ornamented contradictions that make Jordan equally hard to live in and live with. But he's also completely likable; there's no difficulty understanding why he's so beloved of the women around him and why they're willing to entrust him with so much of themselves, so even when he starts rubbing raw you want to give him latitude wouldn't someone else.

Glick has loaded Jordan with delightful bits of character crafting. My favorite is Jordan's weak-kneed, fidgety shuffling in his seat while on a pseudo-date at a, well, documentary about the Franco-Prussian war; with a close second being his agitated, but almost-childlike back-and-forth in fretting about revealing his true feelings to someone he's been going out with. In each case, Jordan is charmingly, self-consciously silly, in on the joke, yes, but happy to meet and exceed the expectations of the stereotype he's embodying.

But what makes the performance—and Significant Other—are the quieter moments. Through a gently slowing speech pattern and a calming of carefully cultivated nervousness, for example, Glick shows you just after intermission how a little more of Jordan's soul is wearing away with each cherished person he "loses" and is not able to replace. His battle is ours as well, Harmon warns, and not something to take for granted, especially if we're not in that place ourselves. Sooner or later, we all get where Gideon so often is: staring across a crowded room at someone we care about, caressing them from afar, and forcing smiles at them through our tears.

Significant Other
Through August 16
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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