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Feeling All the Feelings

Significant Other director Stephen Brackett

On the first day of rehearsal for this West Coast premiere of Significant Other, director Stephen Brackett took some time to chat about his longtime collaboration with playwright Joshua Harmon, the painting that inspired the production design, and the multi-layered relationships at the core of the play.

I would love to start out by hearing about your history with this play.

Stephen Brackett: I directed a reading in New York of an early version of this play when it was called The Franco-Prussian War. Even at that early stage, you could tell it was brimming with life and heart. I love this piece, so I am excited for my chance to stage it at the Geffen.

Do you know what sparked this idea for Joshua when he began writing the play?

SB: I don’t want to speak for Josh, but I will say that at its heart, this is an identity play for the character of Jordan. Josh had written Bad Jews, and I think Significant Other was his chance to write something more personal and reflective of himself and his group of friends, and what it meant for all of them to be going through this specific phase of their life together.

You mentioned Bad Jews, which we produced here at the Geffen, so our audience has some familiarity with it. Are there elements ofSignificant Other that you find are quintessential to Josh’s voice versus things that he’s doing here that are different?

SB: There’s a velocity to Josh’s writing that is consistent between both plays; he tends to write characters who can’t stop talking. In Bad Jews, that’s Daphna, and I think people will see a tiny bit of the speech patterns of Daphna in Jordan. They’re cut from the same cloth in that they tend to go a little bit too far in spinning around ideas. Bad Jews is about the new generation of Jews, and how they are applying their faith to their lives. I think that Significant Other doesn’t have that central idea of Judaism, but is much more about a deep exploration of a specific moment in life. While there is Judaism in this play, it takes a backseat to the domestic issues that the characters are facing.

The different locations of the play mean it has to move really fluidly between scenes — how have you and the designers been approaching this in pre-rehearsal conversations?

SB: There is a trend in modern playwriting that you can’t help but compare to writing for film and television. More and more scripts that I’m reading have multitudes of locations, so it’s an interesting moment for directors and designers to figure out how to tell the audience enough information about a space, but not try to do a bad version of what film can do so well. We wanted to find a central through-line for the visuals of this piece, and there’s a section of the play where Jordan and Vanessa are sitting at MoMA looking at a Rousseau painting [“The Dream”] that really struck a chord with our scenic designer Sibyl [Wickersheimer] and me. We started looking at ways in which people have put that Rousseau painting into architecture, and used that as a lens into this piece. I think we’ve come to a nice balance of suggesting locations while also trying to articulate the heartbeat of the piece.

Henri Rousseau, “The Dream,” 1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York

What are some of the qualities you were looking for when casting these characters?

SB: I was lucky in that I had a little experience with the play going into it, so I had heard people read the parts before. What was important to me in the casting was finding an authenticity with the actors who were approaching these parts. For instance, Kiki can go in so many different directions. She seemingly has no barriers between what she thinks and what she says, and obviously you need a really gifted comedian to play the part. But it can also go so easily into caricature, so we were looking for somebody who was able to deliver on the dimensionality and the heart of the character as well. For me, there are love triangles all over the play, so in casting Jordan and Laura it was important that I felt the audience would believe the gravity and intensity of their relationship. Luckily I’ve had similar indelible friendships with some women in my life, and I think that our Jordan and our Laura will make a believable non-traditional couple onstage.

Do you think the play takes a stance on whether friendship can survive the phase of life where people tend to pair off?

SB: I think the play takes seriously that it’s inevitable that a friendship will change once a significant other is introduced — that is one of the things that Jordan has to come to terms with. I certainly hope for a future where these characters all find a way to keep what they had previously been able to give to each other in their lives. But I do think the play leaves it a little bit up in the air at the end.

With so much of the play being about a group of friends turning thirty and getting married, why do you think we get to see Jordan with his grandmother Helene as well?

SB: It’s so smart of Josh to put Helene in this play because it takes a play that could be limiting in its specificity and gives it context and broadens its scope. The fact that Jordan has a strong relationship with his grandmother, who’s going through a very specific phase in her late life, certainly grounds him in an understanding of the relative smallness of what he’s personally going through, but doesn’t necessarily negate it either. I think it’s this relationship that makes the play feel more universal, and helps us all consider how we navigate these moments in our lives, or how we care for someone who is facing these challenges.

What are you most eager to explore with the actors in the rehearsal room?

SB: The relationships in this piece are so lovely, and I’m excited about finding the specificity in them. I think that’s going to be a delightful part of this process — finding out how the characters function in each other’s lives and how they enrich each other, and why it’s so specifically painful for Jordan to see them partner off.

Besides the technology in it, this play feels relatively unconstrained to a specific time period. What are some of the ways you think this play speaks to our current moment?

SB: We’re living in a time where it’s easy to feel isolated, whether that is through our relationship with our screens and social media, or our relationship to the chaotic world around us. It’s an intense moment of people retreating into themselves. A lot of the show is about Jordan trying to find his significant other, but it is also about him relating to the women in his life and having rich experiences with them. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s really moving. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that this play has made them feel “all the feelings.” I’ve heard that from people who run the gamut in terms of age. So I think that there is something about this play that emphasizes what the theater is about — to be in a space with other people watching something live in front of you, and celebrating the human spirit, flawed as it might be.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel


For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/significantother or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).


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