The term “significant other” is a generic one. In the ultra-complex diversity of the ways we partner, it is a careful term that reveals no details except the “object of affection.” Who really wants to be a significant other when one could be a wife, a husband, a lover, a romantic partner, a soulmate? It’s the clinical kind of term used on applications to carefully skirt more personal issues of identity and sexual preference. Why then does Joshua Harmon use it as the title for his play? Clearly, he is being ironic, for Significant Other is an unromantic rom-com that explores our fears of being alone. In this age when every technological advance promises to keep us in perpetual contact, we are painfully aware of how we feel more alone than ever.
People are marrying later and later, if they do marry. In the 1950s, average age for marriage was close to 20. In today’s world, that number has risen to nearly 30. Consequently, folks in their twenties are much more dependent on close friends for intimacy and these friendships last longer and become essential only to be dashed by the inevitable “wedding bells” that make them inappropriate or untenable. The pain of these breakups can be very intense. When such loves are between a woman and her gay male friend, the end can be particularly crushing. Making such partings worse, our pop culture has perpetuated the unfortunate cliché of the “gay best friend,” a supporting character who can easily feel trapped on the sidelines of his own life.
In Significant Other, Mr. Harmon brilliantly upends the cliché, taking us into the heart of the supporting roles often played by gay characters in the typical rom-com, giving Jordan Berman center stage and giving his story authenticity. As the protagonist in our empathy gym, he draws our compassion. As the most discerning in his group of friends, he struggles to find love while watching his closest friends rush to matrimony for a classic list of the wrong reasons. Can he find a way to be a leading man in his own story? As the parade of weddings cascades down upon him, the tolling bells become a distorted cacophony of voices shouting “you don’t deserve this.” While his most intimate friends march to the ticking clock of biology, we are invited into his lonely, courageous battle to persuade himself that he matters, that he deserves happiness in this world of over-connection, that he deserves to be more than a significant other.
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I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed these last three plays. Chuck and I missed a couple of plays earlier in the season due to illness but we have been delighted to resume the use of our subscription. I can imagine that all 3 of the plays could have been flops. Comedy is difficult. But here the acting and sets and direction all worked wonderfully. We were totally engaged and laughed a lot. Three very different themes and topics …none necessarily obviously relevant to us…. but all three managed to go beyond the specific time and place and character and to become personally meaningful as well as fun. You met your goals of the empathy gym. Thanks.
What a fine teaser for this play! You’re a terrific writer, Bill.
The term “sexual preference” is not much used anymore, nor should it be. “Sexual orientation” is more accurate and preferred.