BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other” was warmly received when it premiered Off-Broadway at the Roundabout’s intimate Laura Pels Theatre nearly two years ago, and for good reason. The heartfelt portrait of Jordan Berman, a socially inept, 29-year-old gay man yearning for love while his gal pals marry off one by one, was as tartly funny as it was touching.
Sure, some characters were not fully fleshed out, the narrative had potholes and tired wedding clichés, and the play felt a little like a television sitcom. Overall it was a clever, absorbing diversion.
Yet when I heard it was transferring to Broadway, I was dumbfounded. There was little chance, I thought, the modest effort, with no bankable stars, could hold its own in a large venue or satisfy fussy audiences paying $150 a ticket.
I may have been too hasty.
Under the razor-sharp guidance of director extraordinaire Trip Cullman (“The Substance of Fire,” “Some Men”), “Significant Other” has intensified in both drama and feeling, comfortably commanding the stage at the Booth Theatre. The scene transitions are tighter and Mark Wendland’s ingenious set, combining Jordan’s New York apartment, workplace, nightclubs, wedding venues, and his Grandma’s home, looks better than ever, thanks in part to Japhy Weideman’s expert lighting design.
The performances are more polished and nuanced than I recall from the previous run. Gideon Glick brings a mournful strain of vulnerability to the neurotic dweeb Jordan. Although it’s annoyingly curious he has no gay male friends and there’s zero mention of his venturing out to a gay bar or toying with hookup apps like Scruff, he has an endearing quality that earns our empathy.
Jordan’s besties are engagingly portrayed by Sas Goldberg, Lindsay Mendez, and Rebecca Naomi Jones (the only newcomer to the cast). Luke Smith and John Behlmann do an admirable job juggling the various roles of co-workers, boyfriends, husbands, and other significant others. And theater veteran Barbara Barrie puts a doleful spin on the typical kindly Grandma role.
The occasional clichés (godawful bridesmaid dresses, a straight girl vowing to have a turkey-baster baby with her gay best bud if she doesn’t find Mr. Right) take a back seat to the poignant, overarching theme of the play: the soul-crushing fear of living and dying alone.
“All the things you got from our friendship, you get from Tony now. Which is great,” Jordan says though tears. “But all the things I got, things I really need — I’m not getting them from anyone.”
What’s more, the play’s darker undercurrents are more intense. The casual mentions of suicide feel more threateningly real. Jordan’s obsession with Will, the hot guy at the office (played with butch aloofness by Behlmann) isn’t just played for laughs; he’s got some serious self-esteem issues. When he quips that his therapist wants to up the dose of his anti-depressants, it’s not meant to be funny.
The comedy has deepened as well. The scene where Jordan is hunched over his laptop, debating on whether to hit the “send” button after writing a mushy email to Will is no longer simply amusing, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and had the entire house in stitches. Glick’s comic timing is impeccable.
Sad to say, the unflinching honesty found onstage does not extend to the marketing campaign. The fancy website touts the work as an “entirely delightful” story about how “people and relationships change,” but completely omits a key fact about Jordan — that he’s gay.
A case could be made that his plight is universal and that his sexuality is immaterial, but I’m not buying it. Being gay is a central part of Jordan’s identity and the action onstage. He spends several minutes describing the water glistening off Will’s muscular torso and sneaks into a locker room and sniffs his T-shirt. Later, one rare date ends with a full-on kiss with another man.
Perhaps the producers feared that “Significant Other” would be labeled a “gay play” and cut into potential profits. And that’s a shame.
SIGNIFICANT OTHER | Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $99-$147 at SignficantOtherBroadway.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission