Significant Other: a uniquely honest reflection on a modern conundrum

"Significant Other" production image featuring Matthew McDonald (left) and Tom Rodgers. Photo: Bob Seary/supplied.

Review: Significant Other, New Theatre, Newtown – Friday, 4 June, 2021. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★

This Australian premiere is a play that ruminates over a very modern conundrum: what do you do when your closest friends find love and settle down, but you haven’t?

At 29-years-old, Jordan Berman seems to have it all: he lives in a great apartment in New York City, has a good job and enjoys life.

Much of his enjoyment is contingent on his three female best friends, who adore him. Their close-knit friendship group is diverse: four very different personalities whose common trait is their pleasure in each other’s company. It creates a wonderful on-stage repartee, delivered by a cast strong enough to create a chemistry that doesn’t feel at all contrived or even scripted.

The play opens with Kiki’s hen do, and a hilarious speech about how, through her evolving independence, she became “like, obsessed with myself”. The point – brilliantly made – is that she, until very recently, believed herself to be the least likely person ever to settle down and get married. It transpires all three women believed this about themselves – until they found ‘the one’. As the play progresses, the audience realises the women do this partly to reassure Jordan who is gay, romantic and very neurotic. 

Not having found ‘the one’ isn’t only the glaring gap in Jordan’s life; it’s his all-consuming ambition. He becomes fixated on a colleague, Will, to the point of obsession. The borderline stalker behaviour is funny because we know Jordan is innocuous; he steals and sniffs Will’s shoes, fantasises over his body and watches him pour coffee like he’s a demi-God.

Significant Other production image. Photo: Bob Seary/supplied.

Despite coaxing Will to the cinema, Jordan discovers his feelings aren’t reciprocated. He embarks on other ill-fated dates; one isn’t over his ex, another isn’t ready for strings. The dating apps don’t have much for a romantic like Jordan, given the tendency for people on there to range from non-committal to obscene. 

These are all very relatable scenarios for a younger audience and casting a gay man to navigate them is inspired; it escapes a whole bunch of hackneyed bachelor/bachelorette stereotypes, yet still hits universal nerves.

Expertly played by Tom Rodgers, Jordan’s exaggerated neurosis roots the character in a place of comedy until that lightness becomes dark. It’s possibly one of the most relatable characters I’ve ever seen on a Sydney stage, a credit to both writer and performer. 

Against all self-imposed odds, all three of Jordan’s female besties find love and marry, then start having kids. They all absolutely still want Jordan in their lives, but he’s acutely aware of the social group changes afoot: “You’ll have a husband, children … I won’t even come close. And I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to. It’s just … your wedding is my funeral.”

I was struck by the tussle within me as Jordan delivered this moving, brutally honest speech to his very best friend, played with warmth and generosity of spirit by Laura McInnes. Part of me felt like he was being a brat, selfishly making one of the biggest days of her life all about him, undermining all the patient support she gave him through his crazy obsessive episodes.

But a deeper part of me really felt for Jordan; his rare honesty about his loneliness and his candour about his conflicted feelings stung, especially as his straight female friends get everything they believed would never come to them. Despite their reassurances, they cannot know what it is to be Jordan: a man without many romantic role models, given the generation above him were lost to HIV, homophobic hate crime, suicide, the closet, drink or drug abuse or the seductions of promiscuity.

Now, their friendships must re-align and re-set. Jordan knows this, and his grief about it, although admittedly depressing, is also one of the most uniquely honest reflections on this subject I’ve seen at the theatre. It’s touching without being saccharine. 

Throughout the play, Jordan’s interactions with his nan, played perfectly by Helen Tonkin, are welcome interludes. They contain clues Jordan is not yet seeing; her faith that he’ll one day find the right man, but also her emerging dementia which shows him that, come what may, he could one day be where she is, unperturbed by memories too foggy to continue to cause pain. 

Jordan’s trio of BFFs – played by Isabella Williams, Dominique Purdue and Laura McInnes – are the light to the darker depths of Jordan’s depression, providing comic timing and heart when most needed. Matthew McDonald gives a standout performance covering five very different roles, including Will, without there being one iota of confusion who he’s playing and when; a feat.

Significant Other production image. Photo: Bob Seary/supplied.

The pacing occasionally loses momentum and, with a little polish, will make this witty, gently poignant play even snappier.

Hamish Elliott’s neon light set is dazzling and less distracting than it sounds, working seamlessly with every scene. 

Jordan’s final song – he’s often asked to sing cheesy songs at weddings – is supposed to be about his best friend and her husband: “I’m everything I am because you loved me.”

When the audience realises Jordan is actually singing it about his friendship with Laura, knowing it’ll never be the same again, it’s the most bittersweet finale imaginable without resorting to outright tragedy. Subtle yet quietly heartbreaking in its own unique way. 

Significant Other plays the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until Saturday, 26 June. For tickets ($20 to $35) and further info, visit https://newtheatre.org.au/significant-other/.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.