“Giovanni[’s Room] is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is more interesting than the question of homosexuality.”
– James Baldwin, interviewed by The Village Voice (26 June 1984)
As a marginalized person myself, I understand the frustration of being the sidekick. It’s bad enough that we rarely get to lead a story (even one about our own cultures), but the few times we are involved in the typical cis/White/hetero tale, we’re often reduced to a number of stereotypes rather than fully developed human beings. This makes the White leads look better by comparison, despite the fact that their characters can be the most horrible of people – particularly in rom-coms.
A lot of what was written about the original NY run of Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other would have you believe that it’s subverting rom-com tropes by putting the traditional sidekick – in this case, the Gay best friend – in the lead, with several cis women’s stories pushed to the background. Were that the case, I would at least be able to praise it for taking a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead approach to the rom-com genre.
But that isn’t the case. Significant Other is a reminder that rom-coms are often populated by terrible people who do terrible things that we audience members are expected to applaud. It doesn’t subvert the genre, it just finds a different kind of protagonist to be a different kind of terrible.
And yet, there are some moments of the show that ring so true that one can’t help but beg for a better playwright to drop a script into the multi-talented hands of director Lauren English. The story of Jordan is the story of being single in your 30s in the 2010s. As your nearest and dearest wind up getting hitched left and right, it’s easy to fall down the slippery slope of “singles depression”. As much as you’d like to be happy for them (and a part of you is), you can’t help but feel as is they’re all planning a party a deliberately “forgot” to give you an invitation. In moments illustrating these ideas, Harmon’s writing (and English’s subtle direction) are spot-on.
Unfortunately, those parts of script are indeed just moments. The biggest problem is with Jordan himself. All of the characters are written pretty exaggerated, which is fine when it emphasizes their flaws. But Jordan quickly crosses the line from “flawed” to “unforgivable”. The concerned he is with being single, the more monstrous he becomes. A key late-in-the-show row between he and BFF Laura has him saying things that not only get him kicked out of her wedding party, but in real life would get him excommunicated from their circle of friends – and they’d all rightfully take Laura’s side. Jordan’s frustration is relatable, but there comes a point when he just becomes a toxic personality to those around him.
Perhaps that’s Harmon’s point, to show that a foundation of friendship and family is what wards off those personality shifts? If so, it’s a rather deep sentiment that he isn’t able to pull off in a rather shallow comedy-masquerading-as-a-drama.
Flawed as the script is, Lauren English makes the most of the story by employing a “less is more” strategy. Jordan is in every scene, meaning actor Kyle Cameron almost never leaves the stage. Though this occasionally results in a few moments of him oddly wearing the same outfit in different point in time, the transitions are otherwise pretty seamless.
Jacquelyn Scott’s set is equally impressive in its subtle design that reveals little secrets here and there: lights appear in the walls; benches come out of side drawers; walls enter and exit on their own, etc. The transitions are strengthened by the sounds of Bay Area regular Theodore JH Hulsker and the lights of Wen-Ling Liao. It’s easy to see why these two are SF Playhouse regulars.
And it isn’t their fault that the script isn’t up to their level of skill. Harmon tried to make a story of pre-midlife singles rage from LGBTQ perspective. That’s an admirable goal, but most of the jokes aren’t funny and our protagonist is an absolute prick. It’s no surprise as to why a guy like that would be sitting alone at reception table. No one needs that kind of gloom on an otherwise happy day.
Significant Other is scheduled to run until the 15th of June at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.