“Don’t get old. Don’t die young but don’t get old. I feel so useless.” This advice, from his grandmother Helene to Jordan, the main character of About Face Theatre and Theatre Wit’s joint midwest premiere of Joshua Harmon’s acclaimed Significant Other, speaks volumes about the way that this play works. Harmon doesn’t spend much of the play focusing on old age—Helene is a minor character in the nuttiness of Jordan’s current life—but Harmon’s actual focus, on marriage and coupling in today’s society, is also similarly full of tightly constructed humor and contradiction and pathos. And this production mines every one of them as deeply as it seems possible to do: every aspect from the acting to the direction to the lighting to the set design to the original music coalesces into a deeply entertaining evening that accurately reflects the deep contradictions that such coupling brings to friendships.
“People are meant to go through this world two by two,” Thornton Wilder famously said in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town. A hundred years after the setting of that play, Harmon offers a slightly different take on marriage: “Have you ever been to a wedding? They’re not fun. They’re disturbing.” And what “disturbs,” truly, is the way they have of causing major changes in the dynamics of old friendships. That is the focus here. Harmon presents us with four old friends: Jordan (Alex Weisman), a 29-year-old gay man who can’t seem to find love; Laura (Amanda Drinkall), his best friend, confidante, and fellow marriage cynic; Vanessa (Tiffany Oglesby), who desperately feels she is not “flying” high enough in her life; and Kiki (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), the party-girl of the group, whose marriage (“I’m going to be a fucked up wife”) starts the whole ball rolling. With Kiki, the least likely among them, getting hitched, it seems clear from the start that the clock is ticking for them all.
From the first seconds, though, this play has us laughing along with these friends at the turns their lives are taking. They are all genuinely happy for Kiki (whom Cassidy-Slaughter portrays so winningly that even when she asks later in all sincerity, “Should I have an affair?” we are still totally on her side) as much as they (including her) might be a bit bewildered. But it doesn’t take long before we begin to see that this event is truly life-altering: Vanessa, whose self-confidence, it is clear from the start, is less than staggering (“I was trying to end it with George, but then he was like ‘Don’t,’ so—”), reveals something about herself in a sort of game they play that involves looking at a complicated painting to see what stands out. “Birds have wings so they can fly but that one’s just sitting there. It’s not flying but it can.” Kiki’s marriage has unveiled Vanessa’s need to “fly”; it isn’t hard to guess who goes down the aisle next, and Oglesby cagily allows all of Vanessa’s internal contradictions to create a wonderfully dynamic, often hilarious character.
But the focus of the piece is on the central pair of friends, Laura and Jordan, who spend some of their time lazily planning faux futures in which they marry and have a happy little faux family with real children but a sexless life. (How? she asks. “Turkey baster,” he replies.) But there are chinks even in this armor: in one poignant scene, Jordan takes the sticker from her apple and places it on his hand, saying, “I just really need something that will touch me and cling to me right now.” His forays into the world of dating are not successful, and he has realized, sadly, that at age 29, no one has ever even told him they loved him.
Weisman, fresh off of his Jeff Award for Hand to God, is miraculous here. He’s so sweet and so moving that you want to reach out from your seat and hug him. (Someone behind me said “Awww” so many times I should have counted them, and each one was deserved.) When Jordan experiences brief happiness, Weisman’s eyes light up brighter than the disco ball used for the wedding receptions and his face becomes one giant smile. And when his pent-up frustration escapes, he does that, too, with every element of his being, his entire body a masterpiece of tension and pain. Drinkall too delivers a tremendously empathic performance, keeping her character focused on Jordan until her own life completely and inevitably interferes. At one point, after introducing him to her husband-to-be, she leaves the man out on the curb to run back in, too excited to know what her best friend thought of him to wait until later. She gives all of the contradictory emotions of Laura, both silly and sad, equal weight, because in our lives whatever emotion we are experiencing is the important one.
Significant Other was directed by About Face Theatre Associate Keira Fromm, and she has all of these characters (along with Ann Whitney, who plays Helene, and a cast of six men all played by two engaging actors, Benjamin Sprunger and Ninos Baba) and their interlocking and changing relationships slipping through scenes so easily that the play veritably flies by. Our enjoyment of these characters (who are all, with the exception—mostly—of Laura, fairly self-involved) depends upon shaping them to be as likable as possible, making their flaws into strengths, and moving scenes briskly along; Fromm has done all of these to perfection. And the scenes play out on a set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec with minimalist furnishings but a world of wonderful white fabric interspersed with flowers draped overhead: weddings are never far away from the scene here. Noël Huntzinger’s costumes, John Kelly’s lighting, and Christopher Kriz’s sound design add depth and appeal to the production: as I said, all elements come together fluidly. It’s unfortunate that the same cannot always be said of relationships, but that is what life—and this show—is all about.
Significant Other is now playing at Theatre Wit (jointly presented with About Face Theatre), 1229 W. Belmont, until December 9. Tickets are available from Theatre Wit. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.