Dancer in the Dark: The Loneliness of Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other”

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“It’s the light of day that shows me how

And when the night falls, loneliness calls”

– “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, Whitney Houston

There much dancing throughout Joshua Harmon’s new play Significant Other, which opened on Broadway at the Booth Theater on March 2. The dancing takes its form literally, as four friends – Jordan (Gideon Glick), Gay Jewish dweeb; Kiki (Sas Goldberg), loud and mess; Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones), professional and cynical), and Laura (Lindsay Mendez), Jordan’s best friend and former college roommate – as they dance at each other’s bridal showers, bachelorette parties, and weddings, in clubs, bars, and Kentucky, with the number shrinking as each successively pairs off, and somewhat more figuratively. Figurative in, again, two senses: the cast literally bounces around the almost MC Escher inspired set, room stacked upon room, and with its language. Finding a nice comfort spot between the quasi-naturalistic dialogue of ‘90s sitcoms and romantic comedies, the cast bobs in and out, talking to one character in one scene and then easily bleeding into another conversation, a relentless swing time that inevitably leaves Jordan alone. And that’s what Significant Other is very plainly, very boldly in some ways about: being alone and trying to figure out what to do when you have to dance by yourself.

Jordan is, perhaps by design and perhaps by Glick’s virtuosic performance, not good at this kind of dancing or, really, any kind of dancing. It may not stop him from having a good time dancing to a mashup of Rihanna and Whitney Houston on the dance floor, but this is the only time he really feels free in his own body. Otherwise, Jordan exhibits a constant unsureness, the battle between his brain and his body written all over his face and every step he takes. Linguistically, he rushes. He wants to get it out because otherwise he’d backtrack and never say anything. He stumbles over his words, and even in reverie and rhapsody, he “looks” ridiculous. But familiar. He looks very familiar. When agonizing over the minute details of a text message exchange between a new, handsome coworker he develops an intense infatuation with, he calculates his moves, he analyzes each step, and his inability to really leave his head in any capacity is reminiscent of watching someone at their first dance recital: trying to do the right moves, but you can see that they’re actively thinking about it. It is certainly true that Harmon’s writing, particularly for Jordan, allows for some spectacular verbal/romantic pratfalls, but they’re elegant even in their embarrassing quality. The feverishness with which Jordan obsesses over his romantic woes is at once beautiful and terribly depressing, certainly an identifiable characteristic.

But there’s a darkness to Significant Other that sit beneath its humor, which is of a very gay Jewish sensibility. It’s not merely that Jordan and company explicitly talk about their fears of how to navigate life with the hope of someone by their side, but it’s the particular impact that this has on Jordan. It’s not super explicit, but he falls into a kind of nebbish persona, where Jewish identity and gay identity intersect with their overwhelming neuroses. The prospect of being alone is uninviting by any metric, but the social and historical trauma of queer loneliness has left its mark on Harmon’s play.

For Michael Hobbes’ essay “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness”, describing the isolation and alienation gay and queer men feel even within the confines of the community. Speaking to Christopher Stults, whose mental health research at New York University focuses on the discrepancies between gay and straight men, Stults says, “Marriage equality and the changes in legal status were an improvement for some gay men. But for a lot of other people, it was a letdown. Like, we have this legal status, and yet there’s still something unfulfilled.” He interviews a myriad of other gay people, many who have ambivalent relationships with their identity, residual from their time before coming out.

Jordan has seemingly long been out, even though the way that he talks about his gay identity, his gayness, drips with, again, ambivalence. He is disinclined to talk about his personal life with his grandmother (Barbara Barrie), the only person who won’t up and create a new life for themselves. The way he navigates his romantic life is startlingly straight sounding; Jordan rarely appears to go out, and especially not to gay bars or gay clubs. He doesn’t have casual sex, or at least casual sex is not casual for him. Significant Other places itself in an ironic or anachronistic paradox.

Because it is, in many ways, a rather conventional story, but it’s one where gayness was once there but erased. There are the markings there, but they’re subtle and feel more like scars than much else. But Jordan reveals the wounds of his selfhood, of who he wants to be and the inability to close the gap between that and who he is cursed to be, in the rhapsodies of desire and of neurosis. He describes with both blindness and clarity the appearance of the coworker, Will (John Behlmann), with obsessive detail. He rambles about sending an email, the text of which is itself both scripted and devoid of structure, the latter of which being the very thing that Jordan desires. Glick’s Jordan folds into himself, and in any other situation, he would disappear into the crowd if you didn’t know him. He identifies in a painting being the player of a flute whose presence seems purposeless. The only thing he has onto are his friends and the very heterosexual lives they’re creating for themselves. It was a blueprint for him too. At the beginning of the play, he and Laura speculate as to what their married life for be. Such are the scars of such intense socialization, that his desires to quell his loneliness mirror the very social structure that has wrought such trauma upon queer people. But we’re told to want it. And he’s told to want it. So he wants it.

At every wedding, he stands and watches and wants. In this space, which is considerably larger than in its Off Broadway iteration, Jordan’s loneliness is deafening, all encompassing, all consuming.

So it’s not hard to believe that Jordan doesn’t really have any gay friends, and it’s not difficult to understand why his insistent, unrelenting need to unpack his emotions and neuroses without necessarily confronting their reality feels so potent. Its lack of gayness ends up being extremely queer in its own right. Significant Other, by its conclusion, plays like something described in Hobbes’ essay, functioning as a product and critique of the lasting trauma of heteronormativity and of the desire to assimilate. Its dream sequences and brief fantasies are as short as a subpar hookup, and provide as much solace for Jordan. Night will fall, and the loneliness will call, as, for him, it is apparently inescapable. He will be reminded that he is 29 and “that no one has said ‘I love you’ to me”. And he will, as he says, wake up the next morning, with no one beside him.

Harmon’s use of digital technology demonstrates how it has made constructing one’s identity easy, and projecting identity and desire even easier. Describing Will, the game is if he’s describing the idea of Will or the idea of who he himself wants to be. The easy intimacy of Jordan and his friends is a thrill to watch, but his dynamic with Laura strikes a chord that recalls Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, in which Gerwig’s Frances must recontextualize her identity when the relationship she has with her best friend dramatically shifts. Jordan has an even more difficult time figuring out how to function, understand himself with the possibility of Laura’s absence in his life. The texts vaguely planning to get dinner or to go out for drinks will mean nothing to him in the long run, but they’ll be nothing if not an opportunity for him to project the happiness he wants to feel. In the final scene, which is 45 Years-level devastating, Laura is getting what Jordan has been told to want.  And he wants it. A lot of us want it, or something like it. But Jordan will have to dance alone, to Celine Dion, no less.

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