Is it possible, in 2017, to discuss a play tracing a young gay man’s search for a life partner without getting mired in identity politics? At a time when hard-won advances are under threat, it’s natural and necessary that analysis of theater (and film and music, as coverage of this year’s Oscars and Grammy Awards proved) examine conflicting perspectives on sexual orientation and gender and race, and the enduring inequities they reflect. What can get lost, though, or at least underestimated, is art’s power to unify, not only by making the struggles of others accessible but by stressing the commonality of basic human concerns.
The play in question here, Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, which opened March 2 at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, hardly announces this agenda or any other lofty ambitions. Introduced off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which had earlier produced Harmon’s caustically funny Bad Jews, it follows Jordan Berman, a romantically challenged New Yorker in his late 20s, and his all-female posse of friends as the ladies, one by one, find the love that eludes him. The action begins at a bachelorette party and ends at a wedding; in between, Jordan, played by Gideon Glick (an alum of Broadway’s original Spring Awakening), nurtures a hopeless obsession with the office hunk, sees a somewhat more realistic prospect fall through, and fields his grandmother’s anxious queries about his social life.
Stereotypes are dangled: Will, the chiseled colleague who moves Jordan to awkward rhapsodizing, is tagged on social media in “Fire Island Summer Party Pics” that show him posing amid a group of shirtless men. Another gay co-worker, Evan, greets Jordan with “Heyyyyyy girrrrrrl” (as the line reads in the text) and is constantly craving office dish. As Jordan and his pals tease and cajole and console each other, the dialogue can feel rom-com-ish; there’s even an extended Celine Dion joke.
But what emerges as this play progresses is something sharper and more unsettling. If Harmon doesn’t eschew cliches — the playwright wields them with surprising wit, in fact — he has crafted, in Jordan, a central character who defies them. On the surface, our protagonist is the sweetly nerdy guy you can always confide in, whose company you always enjoy — the perfect platonic date. But as his buddies begin to pair off, his loneliness deepens into a tragicomic, primal fear, turning ominous and even ugly at points.
In one of several unexpectedly piercing scenes, Jordan lashes out bitterly at his closest and gentlest friend, Laura, played with both winning dryness and great sensitivity by Lindsay Mendez. Here and elsewhere, Glick, whose delivery can be deceptively understated, stuns us with the depth of Jordan’s desperation, while also fully mining Harmon’s wry humor, which is often at its best when it makes us most uncomfortable.
Glick’s meticulously shaded, irresistibly human performance is further supported, under Trip Cullman’s nimble direction, by other costars, including the delightful Rebecca Naomi Jones and a pert, brassy Sas Goldberg as Jordan’s more flamboyant girlfriends. John Behlmann and Luke Smith respectively juggle Will and Evan with other roles; Behlmann’s include, not incidentally, two very different straight men.
Jordan’s grandmother is played by the forever marvelous Barbara Barrie (a vet of the original Company on Broadway) without a flicker of sentimentality. After revealing some of her own dark thoughts, her Helene Berman tells Jordan of his life, “You’re in a tough chapter… But the book is long.” Some may note that’s a privileged perspective, but survival and happiness are, at least broadly speaking, universal goals. In its unassuming way, Significant Other reminds us of their fragility, and why, despite vastly different challenges, we stumble ahead regardless.