When Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” opened in the tiny Roundabout Underground theater in October of 2012, few could have guessed that this play about the varieties of contemporary Jewish identity would captivate mainstream critics and audiences alike, going on to become the third most-produced play in the country during the 2014-15 season. Now Harmon is back, this time on Broadway, with “Significant Other,” also about young Jewish New Yorkers struggling to find their place in the world. When it premiered at the Roundabout in June of 2015, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called the play “as richly funny as it is ultimately heart-stirring.”
Directed by Trip Cullman, “Significant Other” has transferred to Broadway with most of its original cast intact. The play revolves around the character of Jordan Berman (Gideon Glick), a neurotic single gay man and his three closest single female friends, Kiki, Laura and Vanessa (Sas Goldberg, Lindsay Mendez and Carra Patterson, respectively). While Jordan strives to find a romantic partner, he watches his female friends pair up with men and get married. Meanwhile, Jordan’s grandmother (Barbara Barrie) exacerbates his discomfort by constantly hinting that he needs to get married and have children so as to pass on the family photos and lore.
In an interview, Cullman observed that because he himself and most of the cast are Jewish, the Jewishness of the characters comes naturally to the fore. “You can’t really fake a cultural identity,” he said. While he conceded that “Significant Other” is not focused on Jewish issues in the way that “Bad Jews” is, he insisted that Jewish identity “is in the DNA of this play as well.” Cullman described the scenes between Jordan and his grandmother as “heartbreakingly beautiful,” and recalled the strong positive response to the scenes from the legion of Jewish grandmothers who saw the play when it ran at the Roundabout.
For Glick, who plays Jordan, his first time reading the play immediately reassured him that he was not alone in the difficulties that he had had in finding love. “I felt kind of exposed,” he said. “I thought that I was unique in my dating experiences.” Jordan, he added, is his own worst enemy. “He over-analyzes, over-thinks and lets his feelings get the better of him.” The play presents, Glick added, the “slow unraveling of this character” as he begins to realize that being so dependent on—and demanding of — his friends is ultimately going to drive them away rather than keep them in his orbit.
Goldberg plays Kiki, the wildest of the three girlfriends and the one who is about to get married to a non-Jewish Southerner as the play opens. She praised the play’s dead-on accuracy in depicting the Manhattan dating scene in 2017. She noted that whereas the popular turn-of-the-millennium television show “Sex and the City” showed single New Yorkers navigating a glamorous, high-fashion New York, “Significant Other” shows today’s young people dissecting text messages, searching for the slightest clue as to the other person’s feelings and intentions. “The Internet has changed the playing field for dating,” Goldberg said, “because you can always swipe right and find someone new.”
His original idea, Harmon told The Jewish Week, was to write an epic play about unrequited love throughout the ages. But the character of Jordan, once invented, seemed to demand a play of his own. “I decided to write about both huge life events and microscopic ones, and to give them equal weight,” the playwright explained. “I also wanted to explore how friendships change over time,” and the “series of goodbyes” that most of us go through in moving on from one stage of life — and one group of friends — to the next.
“Every play can’t be a debate about Judaism,” says Harmon, but he suggests that Jordan’s scenes with his grandmother, stressful as they may be, “show how the concept of l’dor va dor [from generation to generation] is imbued in him,” even as he struggles with her expectations for his life choices.
Harmon views the play as particularly timely. “In my writing, I try to document the world that I grew up around and to give voice to people who are not white, straight and Christian.” During the play’s run at the Roundabout, he said, “so many people of all different races and backgrounds came up to Gideon and said ‘I am Jordan.’”
Harmon noted that he views the play as “very much a homage” to the late Wendy Wasserstein, whose 1981 comedy, “Isn’t it Romantic,” centers on two 20-something New Yorkers, Janie Blumberg and Harriet Cornwall, and their efforts to figure out what they want out of life. Harmon used one of Blumberg’s monologues as an epigraph for his play, and he used Blumberg’s initials to come up with the name of his own main character. Many of Wasserstein’s female characters struggle to balance competing priorities, Harmon said, at a time when “there wasn’t a long line of women who had done that before.”
Similarly, Jordan finds it challenging and stressful to decide what direction he wants his life to go in, at a time when it is still relatively new for gay men to marry and raise a family. When Harmon attended a reading of “Isn’t it Romantic” at Lincoln Center a few years ago, he recalled that Janie’s probing question, “Can you have it all?” struck a chord with the audience. “Everyone learned forward,” he said, “waiting to hear the answer.” ✿
“Significant Other” opens March 2 at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St. Performance schedule varies; for information and tickets, $49-$147, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.