Chicago Theatre Review
You’ve Gotta Have Friends
Significant Other – About Face Theatre
Jordan is a young man, on the cusp of turning 30. As the play opens, he’s enjoying a mostly fulfilling social life as the Gay Best Friend of his three college pals, Kiki, Vanessa and, especially, his soulmate, Laura. But Jordan’s world is beginning to change as he finds himself entering a new chapter. Jordan’s the life of the parties with his trio of bosom buddies. They all enjoy dishing, sharing private jokes, poking fun at pop singers, dancing with abandon and complaining about their love lives. Throughout everything, Jordan is always comforted that he has a terrific posse of sidekick allies. And, as Bette Midler sang, “You’ve Gotta Have Friends.”
Jordan also has his loving, widowed Bubbe with whom he frequently visits. While helping Helene with errands and reliving the memories evoked by the photographs she has scattered about her living room, Grandma likes to ask Jordan about his social life. He always assures her that everything’s fine and tells Helene about the love lives of each of his girl friends. However, inevitably, everything’s about to change for Jordan.
Bawdy, outspoken, unpredictable and hilarious, Kiki is the first friend to leave the group. She’s met Tony, a wild-and-crazy guy who shares the same bizarre lifestyle and makes Kiki happy. She’s followed by Vanessa, the more cynical, pessimistic young woman of the circle of friends, who unexpectedly meets the fella she feels completes her. One by one, each of the single ladies put a ring on it, until only Laura, Jordan’s very best friend, is there to spend time with him. The two even conjure up a fantasy future life where they’ve married and have two children together, fathered with the aid of a turkey baster. But suddenly and unexpectedly, Laura meets Conrad, and she joins the other women with her own traditional bridal shower, bachelorette party and wedding. Soon Jordan faces the hard, cold realization that each wedding is, for him, like a funeral. All his old friends are now leaving because they have own new lives now. Jordan, left alone, sadly admits that no one has ever loved him, and he becomes jealous, frustrated and depressed.
Perfectly guided by Jeff nominated director, Keira Fromm, this production seamlessly moves through this character-driven story, jumping around in time and place with minimal effort. She’s allowed the humor to play out naturally while focusing on Jordan’s emotional journey from happy-go-lucky to lonely. Joshua Harmon’s high-spirited and heartbreaking follow-up to his earlier play, the take-no-prisoners hit comedy, “Bad Jews,” is still bittersweet, but a much kinder, gentler play. Seen on Broadway earlier this year, Harmon’s new comic drama offers a lot of laughs, but a great deal of heart. It’s certain that every audience member will recognize himself in these characters and situations.
Fromm’s intimate, alley staging fills Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s simple, white-chiffon-and-floral festooned scenic design. The space flows between party venues, Jordan’s workplace, his friends’ homes, his Grandmother’s living room and to three different wedding chapels. These changes are accomplished courtesy of John Kelly’s situation-perfect lighting design, Christopher Kriz’s original music and sound effects and Pauline Oleksy’s perfectly appropriate properties. Noel Huntzinger’s costume designs, particularly her character-congruous wedding gowns and a couple of hilarious Greek goddess-inspired bridesmaids dresses, add much to the look and humor of this play. Credit also goes to Stephen Schellhardt for his kitschy, “Romy and Michele” choreography for Jordan and his friends.
Young Chicago actor Alex Weisman, a two-time Jeff Award-winner for his moving performances in TimeLine’s “The History Boys” and Victory Gardens’ incredible “Hand to God,” is simply magnetic as Jordan. He completely inhabits this character who is the play’s Significant Other. Weisman doesn’t just speak lines and follow his blocking; he lives this role with every fiber of his being. Watch his animated body and sparkling eyes delighting as he describes Will, the new hunk who’s caught his attention in the workplace, or gossips with his gal pals about men. Then, just as suddenly, the actor’s face and body bleeds with emotion as he’s tormented over sending Will a candid email or as he finds his support group gradually leaving him. See Alex soon, because, at the end this run, Mr. Weisman leaves to join the New York cast of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the next big thing on Broadway.
Each of the actresses playing Jordan’s girl friends is wonderful and impeccably played. Amanda Drinkall, another of Chicago’s finest performers, is ideally cast as Laura, Jordan’s alter ego. Skillfully, Ms. Drinkall plays the quieter, more conservative twenty-something schoolteacher, who’s clearly filled with love and empathy for her good friend. When Jordan, frustrated and angry, fires off a long, bitter tirade of accusations at Laura on her wedding day, Ms. Drinkall gathers up all her strength and dignity to defend herself and her life choices. It’s the finest and most difficult and painful scene of the play, but Weisman and Drinkall masterfully navigate this emotional confrontation.
Cassidy Slaughter-Mason is magically manic as Kiki. She floats through her scenes with effervescent ease, clearly enjoying Kiki’s sexual freedom and liberal attitude toward life. She has a stronghold on this brashly self-centered young woman who, even after married, asks her friends if they think she should have an affair. Tiffany Oglesby is very funny and quite touching as Vanessa. As the moodier friend, who mistakenly sees her life as simply an array of dates and lovers, parties and playtime, Ms. Oglesby nicely conveys her character’s surprise at the path Fate has piloted her. And handsome Benjamin Sprunger and comically talented Ninos Baba deftly play all the men in everyone’s lives.
Ann Whitney, a veteran actress who’s been a staple on almost every Chicago stage, is stirring and sympathetic as Helene, Jordan’s elderly Grandmother. A woman who’s experienced everything that life has thrown at her, she’s buried a husband and raised her children; now she’s content to just bide her time until the end. While she’s not morbid, Helene thinks about how she’d like to leave this world. She often becomes lost in her thoughts and memories and tends to repeat herself to her patient grandson. But the simple, sagely advice Helene offers Jordan about living is what resonates the strongest. She tells him that life is a book, with a beginning and an end. Helene explains that we all go through periods of growth, like chapters. Some are delightful and some not so pleasant. This, she advises Jordan, is just one of the bad chapters that he’s going through; but sit tight and everything will eventually change, most likely for the better. That wisdom is what Jordan, and by proxy the audience, take with them from his wonderful story.
Joshua Harmon’s play is reminiscent of “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical commentary about marriage. The difference is that Jordan’s three lady friends don’t try to convince him to get married; he already desperately wants to have a relationship. And, unlike the musical, once they’re wedded Jordan’s girl friends recede from his life and into their own. The play also unspools a little like an Agatha Christie mystery, with each young woman becoming engaged, married and then disappearing, leaving only Jordan by himself. We can almost countdown their demise. There’s a lot of dialogue and the play might be a better with a tad less talking and a little more action. But this is a highly entertaining comedy that offers a look at our brave new world, where gay men and women can now marry. While it’s true that marriage equality now exists, it’s no guarantee that many of us won’t end up alone alone in the end. But, as Bette Midler says, you’ve gotta have friends, and sometimes that’s the best that life can offer.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 3-December 9 by Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.