Like John Logan’s vehicle for Bette Midler, “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers,” “Significant Other” is a Broadway comedy that works better in the cozier confines of the Geffen Playhouse.
The glorious new production of Joshua Harmon’s play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen’s Gil Cates Theater under the direction of Stephen Brackett, doesn’t have to italicize jokes to captivate a large New York crowd concerned about getting its money’s worth. I’m happy to report that in L.A. the wittiness of Harmon’s vibrant dialogue and the resplendent neuroticism of his characters are all that are required to win us over.
One criticism that can’t be avoided is that the playwright missed an opportunity to prune his work into a better-fitting form. The play, about a single gay man sinking into lonely terror as one by one his female BFFs find husbands, is overstretched. But the production compensates for the dramatic ungainliness by getting nearly everything else right.
“Significant Other” could be accused of blurring the line between stage comedy and sitcom, but the work requires no laugh track. The audience is naturally convulsed in hilarity that’s interrupted only by paroxysms of sympathy for a protagonist who doesn’t understand why life is withholding from him the happy ending everyone else in his circle seems to be enjoying.
It’s refreshing to see the gay character normally reserved for comic relief — the second banana’s second banana — take center stage. And how marvelous that the role, magnificently inhabited by Will Von Vogt, has as much depth and complexity as sass.
Von Vogt is Jordan Berman, a romantic dreamer in his late 20s who becomes smitten with a handsome co-worker named Will (one of a trio of male charmers played by John Garet Stoker) after seeing him in a bathing suit at an office pool party. Body-conscious Jordan, who hides his flesh in a polo shirt, memorizes every ripple in Will’s torso while envying the cement for soaking up the water dripping off his body.
Harmon has a gift for uncensored psychological detail. Jordan, obsessing over Will’s forest green Converse sneakers, confesses that, after discovering they were size 12, he cried just thinking about waking up and seeing those large shoes next to this bed.
Jordan, who has been sleuthing through Facebook to learn everything he can about the object of his unbridled affection, keeps his girlfriends abreast of every minor turn in his more or less nonexistent relationship with Will. Should Jordan invite him to a documentary on the Franco-Prussian War after learning that the book Will is reading in the office cafeteria is about Pearl Harbor? (“War books. That’s so butch,” he says, blurting out unconscious thoughts to someone who’d rather not be privy to them.)
Jordan and Will’s eventual movie “date” only leaves Jordan in limbo. And with wedding showers, bachelorette parties and alternative marriage ceremonies making him feel as if he’s running out of time, he’s getting ready to fire off a confessional email he knows he’ll regret the moment he presses send.
The three actresses who play Jordan’s faltering support system are (and I use this word unhesitatingly) perfect. Keilly McQuail brings just the right yakety-yak narcissism to her portrayal of Kiki, the clique’s de facto boss and the first to get wed. ("I wasn't looking. That's the point — that's the point I've been trying to make,” she explains in drunken triumph to her posse on how she managed to turn around her romantic luck.)
As Vanessa, a book editor who’s the second in line to get married, Vella Lovell balances wildness with worldly skepticism. And Melanie Field movingly reveals the conflict her character, Laura, experiences in falling in love with a man who is unbelievably great yet who can’t help sundering her from her gay significant other.
Melanie’s engagement is the final straw for Jordan, whose mental health operatically spirals. Of course he’s happy for her, but he also sees that he will be relegated to an inconspicuous place in her future happiness.
Helene (a piquant Concetta Tomei), Jordan’s gently crotchety grandmother, tries to explain that he’s merely stuck in a bad chapter in a long book. But Jordan isn’t convinced that his story is moving inexorably toward romantic fulfillment.
Harmon, author of the pungent comedy “Bad Jews,” is fascinated by characters who fall between the cracks of traditions. The modern free-thinking women Jordan considers his family have surprisingly made old-fashioned choices that exclude him even as the institution of marriage has opened up to same-sex couples.
He’s stunned that Laura has asked her cousin to be a bridesmaid while relegating him, her closest friend, to reading a poem at the ceremony. The romantic songs Jordan and Laura used to parody are now an unironic part of the wedding rotation. (The way these soppy pop hits are deployed in the production is almost unbearably amusing.)
The issues engaged by “Significant Other” are deeply felt, but the handling isn’t really expansive enough to warrant the extended duration. Harmon indirectly introduces the subject of internalized homophobia through an interaction with Evan (Preston Martin, in one of several humorously overstated roles), a flamboyant colleague of Jordan’s who proposes that the two have sex to palliate their loneliness. But Jordan is too beholden to romantic fantasy to accept compromised reality.
This scene comes rather late in the play, and Evan, a caricature intermittently deployed for obvious laughs, isn’t in a position to challenge Jordan’s worldview. If there’s one quibble with Brackett’s otherwise expertly calibrated staging, it’s that the secondary male figures passing through the story are sketched a little too broadly.
But the crisp presentation of “Significant Other” is undeniably impressive. The design — especially Sibyl Wickersheimer’s abbreviated sets and Bobby Frederick Tilley’s character-defining costumes — combines canny detail with brisk theatrical efficiency. One hopes that the high quality of the production is a sign of more to come from Geffen artistic director Matt Shakman’s attentive stewardship.
Ah, but the lion’s share of gratitude goes to Harmon and Von Vogt for fully realizing a gay stage protagonist whose inner life ultimately matters more than his zingy punchlines. “Significant Other” is an unorthodox (and increasingly dark) romantic comedy that will appeal both to traditionalists craving more existential realism and theatergoers who have long felt excluded from the genre.