Josh Harmon's Significant Other premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 and ran briefly on Broadway in 2017. It was the follow up to Harmon's very successful 2012 play Bad Jews, which in the 2014-2015 season was, per American Theatre's tally, the third most produced play in America, with subsequent productions around the world. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company gave us a superb production of Bad Jews in 2016 and now brings Mr. Harmon back to its stage with the area premiere of Significant Other.
While both of these plays are comedies, Harmon's earlier work has a more serious subtext, raising issues about the judgements made about how others practice religion, especially resonant in the context of Jewish life. Significant Other will not provide the deeper pay-off audiences may have carried home after seeing Bad Jews, but it is nonetheless a very, very funny play, and Bradley Hildebrand,
as Jordan, delivers a tour-de-force performance.
The production is in tip-top shape, with director Haley Finn drawing out both the comic gold and the humanity of the characters Harmon sets before us, in a staging that moves seamlessly from scene to scene.
Jordan is a gay, Jewish, 27-year-old New Yorker and unhappily single. However, his single status is bearable because he has the constant companionship of his three best friends from college, Kiki (Olivia Wilusz), Vanessa (Audrey Park) and Laura (Chloe Armao). He and Kiki work in the same office, which seems to be some kind of marketing firm, but Laura is the closest Jordan has to a soul mate. Things start to fray when, one by one, Jordan's BFFs get married, while Jordan becomes increasingly desperate to find his true love,
He becomes obsessed with Will (Paul LaNave), the good-looking new guy in the office who he thinks is probably gay. The one totally out gay man in the office, Evan (Tony Larkin), who extends an offer of casual sex, holds no interest for Jordan. Evan is totally, transparently transactional. Jordan wants "the real thing," wrapped in romance with intimations of forever.
Between his time with Kiki, Vanessa and Laura, which includes three successive bachelorette parties and weddings Jordan must endure, he visits his grandmother (endearingly played by Nancy Marvy), a spirited Jewish bubbe whose faculties are starting to fail, and increasingly mentions that maybe she's lived long enough, but who absolutely adores Jordan. She offers him constant comfort and encouragement, but Jordan doesn't put much stock in her pep talks, such as when she looks heavenward and says "I know a lot of people upstairs, Jordan, and they're looking out for you."
Harmon created a genuine and identifiable character in Jordan. Perhaps the playwright, openly gay and young (he was 33 when Significant Other premiered) himself, felt a kinship to this character. Jordan's panic attacks, obsessing over a man he has yet to talk to, ranting phone messages, overly explanatory emails, and self-deprecating remarks, countered by his wit and genuine affection for his friends and grandma, are absolutely authentic as written, and are brought to fabulous life by Bradley Hildebrand. Hildebrand rattles off Jordan's dense monologues with utter conviction and gives full expression to Jordan's emotional roller-coaster. He also has searching eyes that augment the notion of Jordan seeking meaning in the form of a significant other of his own.
Jordan's best friends are each a distinct type. Kiki is brash, loud, basically a ditz, but generous and upbeat. Vanessa is stylish, smart, cynical, and guarded with her feelings. Laura, with whom Jordan jokes about having children someday, is bookish, practical and loyal. The contrast is cleverly used, as when Jordan states that the sweater he is wearing makes him look fat (it doesn't). Kiki responds "That sweater is cute!," Laura asks "Did I give you that sweater?," and Vanessa orders him to "Never wear that sweater again!".
The trio of actors in those roles splendidly embody their distinctions, with costumes designed by Rubble & Ash adding to the effect. As Laura, Armao seizes the opportunity to show the greatest depth as she wrestles with being the last of the three to get married, triggering a crisis for Jordan, who now feels fully abandoned. Paul LaNave and Tony Larkin play Will and Evan, respectively, as well as the three grooms who spirit Jordan's friends away from him, and another romantic near-miss for Jordan. Both actors do fine work in parts that do not call for them to etch fully formed characters.
It would seem a stretch to understand his plight as representative of most single gay men. Based on my experience, there are single straight men and single women (both gay and straight) who go through those exact same feelings. When a tight-knit band of young adults splinters off into marriage, or at least committed relationships, be they gay, straight, male or female, someone will be the last, left to carry on without the safety net of the friendship group that had always been there.
At the same time, Jordan's obsessive nature makes it all the harder for him to live with himself and to project the ease that will make him a more attractive partner to others. But in this he is far from unique. Jordan comes across as just one case, who will in all likelihood find the mate he seeks and end up just fine, as his bubbe promises him. We have just caught him at his darkest hour. Then again, there are no guarantees for what life offers anyone.
One other note: While it is understandable why Harmon included Jordan's grandmother in the play—the kindly voice of someone who has lived through so much more than Jordan has yet faced, and who can offer him unconditional love—nothing is said about Jordan's parents. If there is any truth to the notion that our ability to forge intimate relationships is influenced by our parents' modeling, it seems we might better understand Jordan's anxieties on the subject if we know a bit about his own home life.
Michael Hoover's highly functional set, with built-in cabinets and closets cleverly available to provide props when needed, along with Todd Reemtsma lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound—including the unavoidable "first dance" selections at each of the women's wedding—all serve the production well.
Significant Other is a well-written and extremely funny play, especially in skewering both the mating and wedding habits of modern times, It features some swell performances, especially by Bradley Hildebrandt, who is nothing short of fantastic. Is it a great play? No. Is it essential theater? Not really. But it is a good time, and, particularly for those either struggling with the foibles Jordan is facing or those trying to understand the Jordans in their lives—parents or grandparents, perhaps—it may shed a little light on why settling down is such a fraught ordeal for so many.
Significant Other runs through March 8, 2020, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00; $12.00 student rush for any performance with valid ID. For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Joshua Harmon; Director: Haley Finn; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Rubble and Ash; Lighting Design: Todd Reemtsma; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Lisa Imbryk; Technical Director: Dietr Poppen; Stage manager: Samson Perry.
Cast: Chloe Armao (Laura), Bradley Hildebrandt (Jordan Berman), Paul LaNave (Conrad/Will/Tony), Tony Larkin (Evan/Roger/Zach), Nancy Marvy (Helene), Audrey Park (Vanessa), Olivia Wilusz (Kiki).