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BWW Interview: Barbara Barrie's SIGNIFICANT Role

It might not be Barbara Barrie's meatiest role, but her forgetful grandmother in Joshua Harmon's Significant Other is a stand-out.

Barrie is Helene Berman, grandma to Jordan (expertly portrayed by Gideon Glick), a gay man desperate to find his, well, Significant Other. Having three close women friends who have found theirs, doesn't help as Jordan struggles with his other-less-ness.

The play, deftly directed by Trip Cullman, is both bittersweet and laugh-out-loud funny. Jordan and his gal-pals Kiki, Laura and Vanessa (Sas Goldberg, Lindsay Mendez and Carra Patterson) form a tight quartet that is challenged by the women's love lives. When Jordan bemoans his single status while his pals move on with significant relationships, Helene encourages him to take heart.

"It's not a very large part but one that's important to the story," Barrie said. The prolific actress, long acclaimed for her film, theater and television work, brings a counterpoint to Jordan's despair.

Helene may repeat herself every time she and Jordan chat, and she might have a matter-of-fact suicide plan, but she still arms her grandson with heartfelt encouragement and unconditional love.

"The main thing in the story is about trying to find a connection in life, someone to go through it with," Barrie said. "Helene has her own problems with the end of life, but her main objective is to get him happy."

During the rehearsal process, she initially thought she'd be presented with, well, slightly dowdy clothes. She thought costume designer Kaye Voyce was going to put her in frumpy jackets and prim shirts.

"In the rehearsing, she became much more stylish," she said, describing Helene's colorful silk jackets and smart slacks. "I didn't want to play a grandma in a housecoat," Barrie said.

Her relationship with Jordan is relaxed and honest. "I think we establish in the play a real connection, more than he has with his friends. When he's with me, he speaks the truth."

Jordan, who sometimes comes off as a dramatic narcissist exasperates Helene at times. "I think he may be a little self-centered and maybe his own needs get in his way of really reaching out," she said. "When I first read it, I thought he was so stuck on himself, but I think he's so darling. He reaches out to his best friend, Laura, and he is sweet to all his friends."

Barrie thinks the play has themes that bridge generations, genders and ethnicities. "It does appeal to everyone and I have friends from Fire Island in their 70s and 80s and they all say it speaks to them," she said. "Well, almost all. Anyone who's looked for a partner in life can relate. So many different people come backstage or email me that it affects them, too," Barrie said.

"Whatever age you are, you seek that other person. Before I got married I thought I never would and then I did."

The play's dialogue is especially relevant she said, in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Jordan's quest resonates more now and the cast celebrated backstage on that fateful day. "We were all excited that day," she said. And the backstage excitement extended to the curtain call that Friday night when cast members came out holding colorful squares of cardboard that read "Love Rules."

The antics and behavior of the youthful cast are reflected backstage. "They behave the same way when they're not on stage," Barrie said, referring to their amped-up conversations and familiarity with one another.

Although Helene's lines are limited, her importance to Jordan can't be overlooked. In one scene, they take turns snacking from a bowl of jelly beans. They really eat them, she said. "Easier than opening hard candies," she said. "All Jewish households have candy dishes."

One of Helene's repeated tropes is announcing a suicide plan involving pills. Jordan doesn't take her remarks to heart, but he dutifully slips her prescription from her purse and puts it in a kitchen cabinet when he visits. The dialogue is direct. Director Cullman "wanted it said straight out," she said. "No games. It's played as conversation and Jordan says 'Grandma you always talk like that.' "

Barrie offers some choice morsels in conversation with Jordan. One of her favorites is her metaphor for life. "I really love the scene where I try to get him out of his dilemma, telling him life is a book and this is just one chapter," she said. "It's so well-written."

Barrie has few pre-show routines. "I usually arrive around 4 for an evening performance," she said. "Even though it seems like an easy show to do, it's not. It takes a lot of energy and emotion."

Barrie admires the youthful cast's energy and enthusiasm. "They're constantly on the move, backstage or on stage," she said. "I have 50 years on them."

Significant Other is playing at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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