The Roundabout Theatre Company, a non-profit that operates three Broadway houses and two off-Broadway, has quietly emerged as a powerhouse, even if it often seems overshadowed by competitors including the Public Lincoln Center Theater and the Manhattan Theater Club, non-profits that also run Broadway houses, and smaller but similarly fecund producers like the Public Theater and Second Stage. Especially in the hard work of developing new plays and musicals, the Roundabout has been more than holding its own with such recent Broadway shows as The Humans and its revival of She Loves Me, the best underrated musical ever.
The latest play to move from the Roundabout’s off-Broadway truck farm to the hard-nose cultural bazaar that is Broadway is Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, a swan dive into millennial angst that opened last summer at the Laura Pels. Now installed at the intimate Booth Theater, where it opened tonight, the play’s strengths and weaknesses both are cast in brighter relief.
Gideon Glick (The Good Wife, upcoming in Ocean’s 8), an ingratiating actor with a gift for whipsaw changes from clownlike callowness to grieving bewilderment, repeats as Jordan Berman, a gay, single junior marketing executive edging up against the big Three-Oh in the protective, if bitchy, embrace of his three BFFs. There’s self-adoring, pleasantly vulgar Kiki (Sas Goldberg); cool, self-confident Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and, first among these equals, Laura (the superb Lindsay Mendez), whose ironic attitude and self-doubt make her Jordan’s soul mate. Snuggling, they fantasize about setting up house together, creating their own little word to protect one another from the crassness and the hurt Out There.
One after the the other, the women find love — first Kiki, then Vanessa and finally, to her own astonishment and Jordan’s barely hidden heartbreak, Laura. Losing Laura and confronting his expanding loneliness is, essentially the dramatic arc of Significant Other. Call it “Three Weddings And ….” as I wrote back when it opened. Jordan is the ellipsis, the unknown falling-off when everything else has been resolved.
Jordan regularly visits his widowed grandmother Helene, played with such elegant tender wisdom by Barbara Barrie that I often felt the urge to shout out, “Wait, go back! I want to spend more time with her!” And when Jordan is certain he’s fallen down a dark well he’ll never climb out of, it’s Helene who shines a light as strong as a rope with which he might pull himself up. When he reminds her that she’s often weighed the pros and cons of different forms of suicide during their visits, she cheerfully admonishes him.
“Oh, that’s just talking, I would never do anything,” Helene tells him with matter-of-fact impishness. “I just like knowing my options.” But she understands that for all the dramatics, her grandson’s pain is real, and deep, and awful. “It’s a long book, Jordan,” she says. “You’re in a tough chapter. And you don’t know when this chapter will end and the next one will start. But the book is long. It’s a long book.”
Harmon writes knowingly about this cohort. Significant Other is more sensitively drawn than his acrid comedy Bad Jews, though they share a certain glibness and a maddening disconnect from any world outside their own hearts. Indeed, Jordan revels in his general ignorance and lack of interest in the outside world, one reason he’s rejected by a Will, a crush from work who reads books about wars . (Will is one of several roles played with relish by John Behlmann; the excellent cast also includes Luke Smith in multiple roles.)
Harmon also knows how to deliver the big scene, and Jordan’s Act II showdown with Laura is a doozy, given proper weight both by Glick and director Trip Cullman.This is the second play this week to remind me of the late Wendy Wasserstein (Linda was the first), and Significant Other specifically acknowledges that debt in an epigram to the script. It reminds us that romantic comedies don’t always end romantically. Barbara Barrie, as Helene, quietly closes the deal on that thought. One of the finer things about Significant Other is that it has in store for us a surprise ending that feels organic, and sad, and true.