Chicago Theater Review: SIGNIFICANT OTHER (About Face Theatre and Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 9, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


We’re born alone. We die alone. But in between we need people—for love or money. That’s searingly so for Jordan Berman. The gay anti-hero of Significant Other is a slightly overweight (and morbidly aware of it) advertising copywriter approaching 30. This New York survivor longs for a “significant other.” Love, not sex, is on his menu but not his plate.

Or, just maybe, the anguished title character in Joshua Harmon’s 2015 drama is Jordan himself. He’s his own “significant other,” existentially doomed, as Sartre showed, to always be the “other,” drifting in search of meaning, never finding the second soul to validate his own.

A regional premiere by Chicago’s About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, this 135-minute character study takes a devilish delight in not sparing us the sometimes-grungy details of one guy’s frenetic search for happiness. Lacerated, even eviscerated, across two increasingly frantic acts, Alex Weisman’s Jordan harks back to the bad old days of the lonely homosexual: Like the catty creatures in Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, he will never hear someone say, “I love you.” Call it “The Importance of Being Desperate.” At least and best, Keira Fromm’s caring staging makes a bitter drama somewhat sweet.

Harmon states the premise behind this dark comedy: “How do you make life work for yourself when you feel that you’re not living the life you’re supposed to be living or want to be living? And how do you deal with that when the changes that you need to make are in some ways outside of your control?”

Indeed. Jordan finds himself surrounded by a chorus of confidantes. They’re the kind of constant companions who in yesteryear were cruelly called “fag hags.” Laura, Vanessa and Kiki, female (and heterosexual) friends all aged 29, constitute Jordan’s very conditional social life. (His resemblance to Bobby, the sole single guy—and center of couples’ constant attention–in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, can hardly be accidental.)

Each lady is deep in anticipation, enjoyment or recovery from a slew of engagement parties, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, wedding ceremonies and receptions, or the prospect of baby showers. By process of elimination, their organized fun and programmed passions irritate, then enrage, Jordan. Long ago he discovered that “Being alone is so weird.”

A narcissistic airhead, Kiki (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) is full of good intentions and empty advice. African-American Vanessa (Tiffany Oglesby), an ad editor, has tough love to offer but prefers looking forward (to her George) than back to Jordan’s (lack of) love life. Finally, Jordan’s best friend Laura (the wonderful Amanda Drinkall) is a “schoolmarm” type who used to be a sure bet to dance with Jordan at weddings after the bride and groom take the floor. Even she—“et tu, Laura?”—apparently abandons him for her new love Tony.

Laura’s imagined betrayal absolutely unhinges Jordan. In a second-act diatribe of Jeremiad proportions, a screamfest that borders on a mad scene, Jordan excoriates her and the others for asking him to be there for them in their many romantic and marital occasions—but not feeling sorry for him when they can’t return the favors. As he lamented earlier, “I hate being a person. I wish I was a rock, you know? Or anything. A salamander. Dental floss. Rain.” Don’t we all?

The fourth woman in Jordan’s life is his grandmother Helene (Chicago favorite Ann Whitney). But her senile wisdom and useless nostalgia offer little support for Jordan’s metastasizing unhappiness. More and more Jordan, whose favorite epithet seems to be “Enough!,” can’t abide “talking that’s just talking.”

Sure, gay marriage is at last available to the Jordans of the Big Apple. But for this elaborately depressed young man that opportunity triggers fiendishly contrary emotions—guilt for lost chances and anger over the institutionalization of love.

The men in Jordan’s life intensify his isolation. There’s his motormouthed, unhelpful colleague (Ninos Baba) who might have been more to him. And, all too briefly, there’s sexually ambiguous Will (Benjamin Sprunger), a handsome catch about whom Jordan obsesses in infatuation. (But, after so much exposition about Will being the solution of Jordan’s neediness, Harmon writes him out of the play as if he never was.) Other than these, in a huge city teeming with countless eligible bachelors, Jordan seems to have no gay friends.

No question, Harmon understands the challenges and contradictions of minority millennials. He shrewdly contrasts them with the approved rituals and festivities of “normal” New Yorkers, scathingly specific to the last balloon launch. About Face’s scorching show is infuriatingly true to the dead-end dreams of many gay Gothamites who hope that rainbows aren’t just in the sky.

And, no doubt, Fromm inspires grounded, richly revealing work from seven players. Manically miserable, Weisman’s Jewish non-prince tears up (pun intended) before our eyes. Skirting stereotypes, the ensemble equally honor the painful parts of their personae, despite the cackles of an opening night “laugh track” claque who preferred things strictly sitcom.

By play’s end Significant Other feels solidly sad, as ironic as its taunting title. Queer culture, as Harmon sees it, can be mean as the streets. Sex in the city is never pretty. Pick your poison.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Significant Other

About Face Theatre and Theater Wit
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3 (check for holiday alterations)
ends on December 9, 2017
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Theater WitAbout Face

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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