Considering its title is “Significant Other,” one walks into the theater expecting a play about romance – and you wouldn’t be wrong.
As this bittersweet comedy introduces its quartet of main characters, however, it becomes clear that playwright Joshua Harmon is more interested in a different connotation of its titular phrase, which could easily be used as a description of friendships forged during those heady years between youth and adulthood, the kind you share with people who feel like extensions of yourself.
It’s the kind of connection shared by Kiki, Vanessa, Laura, and Jordan – four former college chums who have made the transition into adult life as young professionals in New York City. The play begins with them gathered to celebrate Kiki’s upcoming marriage, the first to occur within their tight circle. Jordan – gay, approaching 30, perennially single, and with no romantic prospects on the horizon – is hard hit by this development. Despite an ebullient exterior, he has a tendency toward insecurity and obsession, and he worries that his friends will find love and leave him behind. Inevitably, of course, the other girls are soon heading toward the altar themselves, and Jordan, believing that his fears are coming true, spirals into an existential crisis.
Watching these friends navigate the rough waters of love and friendship, most audience members will doubtless recognize their own young adult selves. All the camaraderie and high spirits of youth are on display here, alongside the same hopes and fears that plague anyone who spends more than a few seconds considering their future lives. As the focus narrows towards Jordan and his panic, it’s also easy to see reflections of the inner darkness that threatens to overwhelm most of us as we confront those hopes and fears – the negative self-talk, the self-pity and resentment, the catastrophizing, and the compulsive choices fueled by desperation.
These latter aspects of Jordan’s journey are both hilarious and uncomfortable to watch. An upper-middle-class Manhattanite with Jewish heritage and an array of neuroses behind every self-deprecating one-liner, he is like a Woody Allen character transplanted into an era in which cell phones, emails and social media have turned the always-complicated process of finding love into a confusing maze of unclear boundaries and dead-end pathways. “Significant Other” is not the first play to explore this treacherous ground through the eyes of the millennials who must navigate it; but by giving us this richly drawn character as a guide, Harmon goes a long way toward making it one of the most insightful – and funniest – so far.
Another reason it works is its balanced perspective. Though its young characters are understandably caught up in the world as they know it, they are also tethered to the traditions of the past. The difficulty of staying within those old lines in an era that has completely redrawn them is a source of understandable stress – a fact which the play addresses through a series of scenes between Jordan and his widowed grandmother, which not only offer a comparison between the old generation and the new, but ultimately serve to provide the comfort that can be found in the wisdom of experience.
The angle that places the play most definitively in the rough transition between past and future, though, is the sexuality of its central character. Jordan essentially represents the now-common cultural trope known as the “GBF” (Gay Best Friend, for those unfamiliar with millennial text-speak), a status which would normally relegate him to a supporting role; here, though, Harmon turns things inside out, and tells the story through his eyes. Ostensibly, putting an out gay man front and center might seem to proclaim the arrival of an era some are calling “Post-Gay.” Such an assumption, though, like that classification of our times, would be premature.
Throughout the play we see subtle hints that highlight how Jordan’s queerness affects every aspect of his social experience. His girlfriends are certainly not homophobic, yet they struggle with finding a role for him within the rigidly gender-defined customs of their weddings. Even worse, he is crippled by his own internalized homophobia, instilled by a culture that favors hetero-normative couplings, and has tremendous difficulty making romantic connections of his own. If being gay isn’t supposed to matter anymore, why does it still matter so much?
With his performance as Jordan, Will Van Vogt illuminates these observations brilliantly; at the same time, his deft comic skill and gay-nebbish charms keep them from turning what is meant to be a light-hearted romp into yet another tragic portrait of gay despair. Even more impressive is the way he carries the show; required to make rapid shifts of mood at an almost manic rate, he succeeds at every turn.
As Laura, his platonic soul mate, Melanie Field matches his energy – and his sincerity – to provide the heart connection that gives the play its emotional core. Keilly McQuail and Vella Lovell (as Kiki and Vanessa, respectively) are more directly comedic; they both score high on the laugh meter, while still providing the authenticity needed to make the central foursome a believable gang of friends.
John Garet Stoker and Preston Martin may have the most difficult acting duties of the production; tackling an assortment of roles, both exhibit tremendous versatility and each garners some show-stopping laughs – with some help from the deliciously satirical costume and hair designs by Bobby Frederick Tilley. Concetta Tomei, as Grandma Helene, brings a welcome dose of grounding maturity with a performance that is tender yet refreshingly unsentimental.
The whole package is tied up beautifully by director Stephen Brackett, who avoids indulgences that might skew the balance between comedy and drama. The characters’ foibles are lampooned without a sense of cruelty, and the tender moments pull at our heartstrings without seeming precious; the result is both entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
“Significant Other” is not the kind of epic theater normally associated with seismic shifts in society. It’s smaller than that, with echoes of influence from decades of movie rom-coms. It’s also less likely to strike deep chords for older audiences, who might tend to see its characters and situations as humorous commentary on today’s youthful “snowflakes” while observing their trials with the bemusement that comes with the distance of age – but then, it wasn’t really written for them.
For younger viewers, especially those within the social bracket directly depicted in Harmon’s setting, there is much here with which to connect. This is a play about looking at an uncertain future through the eyes of those who are going to live in it. It’s for a generation whose lives are beginning in the here and now, and it speaks directly to them. I hope they will come to see it. They won’t be disappointed.
“Significant Other” stars Melanie Field, Vella Lovell, Preston Martin, Keilly McQuail, John Garet Stoker, Concetta Tomei, and Will Von Vogt. Now playing at Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theatre,10886 Le Conte Ave, Los Angeles, through May 6. Tickets available at www.geffenplayhouse.com