Grow Up

The Modern Gay Way to Lose Out in Love: Review of ‘Significant Other’ on Broadway

‘Significant Other,’ a light comedy about dating, growing up, and coupling up, also aims to be dark portrayal of modern gay loneliness. But it’s an uneasy narrative marriage.

Joan Marcus

The reviews had been so positive for the Off-Broadway production of Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, that its laureled coronation on Broadway should have been all but assured.

But there are so many jarring, derailing elements to this Roundabout Theatre production—about a gay man in his late twenties confronting loneliness, but not really confronting loneliness convincingly, and therein lies the problem—that the evening merely becomes an extended sequence of his irritating whining.

The play’s peppy (occasionally extremely funny) comedy ill-balances its very dark heart, which—as the final curtain reveals—is really about one man’s terrible isolation. It’s Ibsen meets Will and Grace, but—as that show’s Jack might screech—“in a bad way.”

Jordan Berman (Gideon Glick) has three longtime friends: Kiki (Sas Goldberg), Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and Laura (Lindsay Mendez), all of whom we first meet at Kiki’s bachelorette night. The mood is as delightful and messy as you’d hope: Kiki is the loudest, while Vanessa and Laura are just moderately more sensible.

Then there is Helene, Jordan’s grandmother (Barbara Barrie), font of particularly dry wisdom as Jordan’s interrogation of life and the meaning thereof takes him to her door. And that door is visited frequently as his friends pair off: The recurring motif of the show is Jordan observing the dancefloor at each of his friend’s weddings—to men he doesn’t particularly like—accompanied by two, then one, then no friends at all.

This trajectory of Significant Other, directed by Trip Cullman, is studded by a baffling series of plot add-ons that go, disappointingly, nowhere—leaving a trail of intelligence-insulting red herrings.

Most prominent of these is Will, a studly co-worker played by an excellent, inscrutable John Behlmann. Introduced to us in a super opening sequence—Jordan remembering a pool party where Will stood dripping in his trunks, Jordan wishing he was the concrete soaking the droplets up—Jordan tries to decipher everything and anything to turn his desire for Will into a reality.

Glick is excellent when playing Jordan at his most frenetic and semi-stalkery, such as when he hovers over his keyboard, deliberating like a lunatic over whether to send an email to Will trying to ascertain whether the lust he feels is mutual. Mark Wendland’s brilliant scenic design deconstructs a house-shape to give us nightclubs, offices, city streets, and each character their own domestic space.

An excruciating, but not terrible, date at a Franco-Prussian war documentary Jordan puts himself through in the service of this lust for Will—a hunk whose beauty is self-marketed on social media—is expertly written and directed. These scenes merited the appreciative audience engagement that attended them.

But the Will story comes to naught, and so Jordan frets and frets to his girlfriends. But they begin to have personal lives of their own, and he feels rejected. Now, that is an understandable dynamic, but Significant Other knows not what to do with it but restate it. The men in his friends’ lives are suspicious no-goods, although it’s never made clear why.

Another date doesn’t go well. Jordan rebuffs the friendship of another gay guy at work, played by Luke Smith, significantly campier than he, and someone we are encouraged to find funny for being so outré, which feels a little grubby particularly as Smith’s skills as an actor make his character the most interesting and underwritten on the stage. Jordan is a gay man, out and apparently OK with being gay, who is also uncomfortable around men and around expressing his sexuality. This is fascinating, and true, and yet as a theme in the play it hangs there invisibly, unexplored.

As Jordan’s kvetching over his single status increases, there is another puzzle: his relationship with Laura. We keep being told it is closer than between him and the other women, but the basis of that intimacy is never made clear. They have a wrenching, ugly row at her bachelorette night, which should leave us feeling as winded and wounded as it does them. But it does not, because we neither know, nor buy, the depth of the relationship we are told exists between them.

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There is a lot to be said about the taboo of gay loneliness: Authors like Matthew Todd in his book Straight Jacket and Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage write about the fragility of modern LGBT mental health, and there is this brilliant, just-published article by Michael Hobbes too, looking at uncloseted, apparently sorted gay men who are also lonely, isolated, and sometimes addicted to drink, drugs, or suicidal. This is the raw underbelly of the uplifting marriage equality narrative, and just as urgent to tell.

But Significant Other gnaws at the subject more half-heartedly than these three examples, and then far too dramatically. We don’t quite see how the escalation of not being able to get his man or his now-married friends for late night bitching sessions on the phone segues to true, terrible loneliness and isolation. Yet that isolation is in Jordan’s mind and of his own making, as his friends have done all they can to reassure him they are there for him.

Depression, of course, can be self-destructive. But this isn’t sketched in the show either. And so Jordan’s tantrums and anger and complaining begin to grate. You cease feeling sympathy for him, because he so obviously wants it. And the terror and anguish he feels isn’t adequately sketched. It feels like there is a much darker play here, and maybe a more interesting one, buried under a confected whipped cream of levity.

Glick is a genuinely charming performer, but in the mission to make Jordan cute and loveable, a puppy who just wants the right person to stroke him, he also makes him infantile. He seems too assailed by the emotional shifts demanded, inexplicably, of his character.

More than once, I wondered how old Jordan was supposed to be: early-twenties, early-thirties, mid-forties? And he speaks in a faraway, dreamy voice about dreamy things, which again, far from being seductive, becomes a bore.

As ever, granny knows best, and Helene—who is losing her own faculties, though not the love she has for Jordan—tells her grandson to buck up, and that yes, people go off and get married, but, as with most things of life, the trick is to endure and find one’s own path.

That is easier said than done, and the most impressive thing about Significant Other is its bravely downbeat ending. The problem is the jangling combining of fluffy dating rom-com with sporadically searing exposition of human isolation: It just doesn’t convince or gel.

You want happiness for Jordan, for sure—you want him to find whatever nourishing connection he can. You want him to count his blessings, and get on with the messy business of life as we all must. But really, by the end, you just want him to shut up.

Significant Other is at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NYC. Running to July 2. Book tickets here.