Joshua Harmon’s first play Bad Jews introduced us to him as an imaginative writer with an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue. It also informed us that he could write with rage about matters that interested his characters. In Bad Jews they were members of a family that were in battle over the disposition of a relic being passed on from a recently deceased grandfather. The play has proven popular and moved from a small black box production at the Roundabout to the larger Laura Pels theatre which in turn has led to many regional productions.
Harmon immediately started work on a second play, one he was about to call The Franco-Prussian War. As it evolved, he re-named it Significant Other, and the Roundabout is offering it to us now in a fully realized production, again at the 420-seat Laura Pels Theatre. It may well have the same fate as its predecessor, but on the surface, it’s difficult to understand why.
It certainly is funny, and it has its tender moments as well and its predominant characters are well drawn and well played, but they are not the sort of people you’d like to know. It is impeccably cast with seven actors who play eleven roles.
“Jordan Berman” is the figure we follow through a difficult time in his 29 year old life, during which his three best friends (all girls) finally land husbands and move on to lives that will more or less exclude him. He identifies with them as a gay man, and he would seem to have few, if any, male friends. He has a grandmother (stylishly and accurately played by the very-welcome Barbara Barrie) in whom he confides, and it’s in his scenes with her that he is most sympathetic. But clearly she hasn’t accomplished much in terms of helping him grow up. No, he is maddeningly adolescent throughout and though Gideon Glick plays him without compromise, he is frankly self pitying and tiresome.
“Not so,” was the reaction of many in the audience, who laughed with laugh-track immediacy at most everything anyone said. In Kiki, Laura, and Vanessa, Jordan’s three best friends, the actresses Sas Goldberg, Lindsay Mendez, and Carra Patterson have accurately delivered three most unappealing young women who choose husbands for all the wrong reasons, leaving Jordan behind to fend for himself. What we are left with at the end is a thirty year old man who has been so broken by life’s vicissitudes that he would seem not to have much of a chance for a happy life ahead. It would appear that the very audible laughers in various pockets of the theatre identified with him, and found him adorable. I give credit to Mr. Glick, and to his three ladies, for offering us recognizable characters, but not those I’d like to spend 2 l/2 hours with. Only Grandma seemed self aware enough to make a most enjoyable companion for a visit.
I had problems with Director Trip Cullman’s staging as well. With the assistance of designer Mark Wendland he set the play in a skeletal house which must serve as home to all of his principal characters. I was never quite sure where we were as we watched scenes with all of them in various stages of their lives. Grandma seemed to be living with one or two of the girls, sharing space with them. Jordan has a crush on an athletic jock named Will, and as he is played by John Behlmann (who also plays two of the men in the ladies’ lives), you begin to understand my confusion throughout the evening.
So here we have an infuriatingly inconsistent work by a very gifted writer. The play needs cutting (there are two monologues in Act II that go on seemingly forever, and we had gotten their point half way through). On occasion, Trip Cullman has even permitted actors to play important moments facing each other, or upstage, so that some of Joshua Harmon’s keenly observed dialogue went flying off into the wings.
I would sum up by saying that Significant Other is well-intentioned and a near miss in almost every department. As I’ve written, it was superbly cast with one exception — me. I was the wrong audience for it, as these people irritated rather than intrigued me.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.