Significant Other, currently on at the Fugard Theatre, initially left me puzzled and perplexed, but ultimately —on the other side of its sitcom feel— delivered a play with heart. Although the characters mostly appear bubbly and happy, this relatable dramady will leave many a young audience members wiping away tears.
The narrative that underpins Significant Other is driven more by pathos than by comedy —or at least that was my experience of the play. It’s like a Sweetie Pie: a lovely experience in the end, but if you don’t know this delight is only 30% chocolate and actually 70% marshmallow, you might be in for a surprise.
As I wasn’t expecting the comedy to be the illusion before the mushy (yet ultimately pleasing) revelation of bitter-sweetness, I wasn’t swept up by the kind of comedic rhythm I’d anticipated. I was ready and waiting for side-splitting fits of laughter —as I experienced with the touching yet utterly hilarious Bad Jews— though at interval I found myself feeling somewhat unfulfilled as I joined the excited opening night audience a buzz in the foyer. Luckily, the story does not end there!
Although Significant Other is also from the pen of Bad Jews’ playwright Joshua Harmon, and still very much a people-centred play, I found that the emotion of this offering reveals itself somewhat differently. Don’t get me wrong, the script is witty and I did have a good giggle at times, but with Significant Other, sensitivity and poignancy weigh heavier than hilarity. For this reviewer, the play has too much soul and sentiment reverberating through it to be the laugh-out-loud comedy some proclaim it to be. The funny bits in the script function as a buffer to make sure that the heart and drama don’t overwhelm you and leave you wondering, ‘What’s the meaning of it all?’ —‘all’ here referring to relationships, life, and the complexity of human interaction. The quips throughout mask the depth and sometimes teary ‘I’m so happy for you!’ perplexities, and perhaps even a fair amount of depression that one wishes Harmon would have explored a little more.
In fact, behind the sitcom impression lies heartache that will make any Meg Ryan fan dash to the Fugard Theatre Box Office to make a block booking and invite every hopeless romantic in the vicinity.
In Significant Other, you view the fast-paced life of New York City through the eyes of the last-man-standing (single and alone), Jordan, as he interacts with his close-knit group of gal pals. In showing you a snapshot of Jordan’s life, director Greg Karvellas subtly guides his performers to reveal the hopes, dreams, and insecurities of their characters in a relatable fashion. I say ‘snapshot’, because we don’t get to see where a much older Jordan ends up later in life. This appropriately leaves one feeling as incomplete as Jordan does as an unattached almost thirty-something in that moment in time.
What Karvellas does with this Harmon play is more than just poking at human emotions; he completely exposes them. Perhaps that’s the crux of it all. Karvellas’s vision leads to the choice to accentuate the characters’ feelings more than the moments of comic relief. When you do laugh, that reaction is a knock-on effect from seeing the characters trying to deal with their everyday lives while you either go, ‘That’s so me’ or ‘I know someone just like that’. Ultimately, you laugh because you understand. Or rather, as my friend said after the final blackout, ‘To quote Karen Walker, “We laugh because it’s true!”’.
Joining Jordan (Gabriel Meltz) in this snapshot are his OTT friend Kiki (Dominique Maher), his closest confidante and former roommate Laura (Lucy Tops), and his reality guru Vanessa (Lesoko Seabe); all destined to walk down the aisle before him. In following the four friends’ stories, you also meet the men in their lives (Roberto Kyle as Gideon, Evan, and Rodger, and Ryan de Villiers as Will, Conrad, and Tony), as well as Jordan’s gran Helene (Michèle Maxwell), who makes the occasional appearance.
Maher does a great job playing Kiki, the self-centred ‘whoo-hoo’ party pal everyone loves to hate (and potentially keep around to make the rest of them feel better about their life choices). Maher, in channelling Kiki, actually opens the play on a very cheerful and comedic note, easing you into a false sense that this is going to be all fast-paced fun and laughter from beginning to end. De Villiers and Kyle also show versatility in jumping between their characters, while Maxwell gives Helene a quirky confidante persona.
Meltz is very likable as Jordan. He entices you to feel for Jordan as he grapples with the fact that he is unlucky in love —in not being able to find the perfect man he created in his dreams— while dealing with daily millennial conundrums, such as Facebook friend request response times. I did however find myself wondering if Meltz could have added more depth to the Jordan he initially introduces; perhaps channelling more of the real life experience Jordan should have at the age of 29 to provide a heightened sense of the complexity of Jordan’s angst. I say this, because Meltz so impressively hits you with a sense of great depth 90 minutes into the show with the build-up to what later transpires as a very captivating stand-off between the closest of friends —possibly the most persuasively real moment of connection in this play.
The ultimate Significant Other accolades must go to Tops and Seabe. Tops truly shines with her authentic and deeply emotive portrayal of Jordan’s (arguably best) friend Laura, while Seabe —with her jaded, deadpan delivery of unquestionable truths— is a delight to watch as Vanessa. One could even look to Will & Grace's Karen Walker again to describe Seabe’s Vanessa: ‘Honey, tact is for people who aren’t witty enough to be sarcastic’.
The only thing that really troubled me about this production was the staging (and by association, the set design). The story felt too intimate for the vastness of the theatre. Part of that, I think, comes down to set-related choices. Instead of drawing certain moments in, the scaffolding (which admittedly does give you a New York City feel) does not create the everything-in-close-proximity sense that one would associate with city living. Rather, it feels like the set was designed to lean away from the audience —creating the sense of space and thus drawing the characters away too. In fact, Helene’s apartment scenes are set so high up the 'skyscraper', and so far removed from everything else, that it almost feels like an associated play performed as interlude before returning to the main production. This, at times, slows down the required fast-paced New York beat of the play.
Set and staging concerns aside, Significant Other will appeal to anyone who has felt abandoned, depressed, or utterly alone in a room full of people. If that feeling is something you (or a former version of yourself) can relate to, then my bet is you will find yourself smiling through the tears as you and Jordan walk hand-in-hand through the remnants of his twenty-something life.
The Fugard Theatre is currently only taking bookings for Significant Other until 7 July 2018, with tickets available through their website at www.thefugard.com. Please note that Significant Other has an age restriction of 16.