Joshua Harmon’s latest takes on America’s obsession with youth and beauty and brings Idina Menzel back to the New York stage in her first non-musical role.
Harmon’s new play resembles Admissions, his last New York offering seen at Lincoln Center this March, in that it debates a topic from many sides but then fails to give us the author’s point of view on it at the end. Like all of his four plays so far it offers a strong character who has a very big gripe with the way things are and who attempts to change people accordingly. And like the others, Skintight is very funny while it deals with a serious topic but ultimately seems rather superficial, though here that may be because of the extremely wealthy milieu in which money is no object and things magically appear via live-in servants. As is Harmon’s wont, the acerbic repartee is tossed about plentifully and as directed by Daniel Aukin, the six actors get the most out of their snappy lines.
On the eve of her ex-husband’s engagement party in Los Angeles to 24-year-old Misty who spends all her time in the gym, fortyish Jodi has taken the red eye to New York to see her father, ostensibly to celebrate his 70th birthday, in his luxurious West Village townhouse. However, what she really wants is some sympathy and affection from her father Elliot, the internationally famous fashion and underwear designer (who has reminded some of Calvin Klein). However, he is not happy to see her in this unannounced visit: he has a new boyfriend, the uncultured, hunky and desirable Trey who just happens to be fifty years his junior and sporting a $450,000 Rolex watch. Not only is he the same age as Jodi’s gay son Benjamin (who shows up from a year abroad doing queer studies in Budapest) to help celebrate his grandfather’s landmark birthday, but also Benjamin recognizes Trey from a disreputable web site, but does his grandfather know? Jodi takes it upon herself to break up her father’s new relationship and show him just how unsuitable it is.
When Jodi tries to make this a learning lesson for her son that what matters is who someone is on the inside, it appears the battle is already lost. Benjamin reminds her “that message got lost like somewhere around the war over Helen of Troy.” The foursome spends the weekend sparring, and ultimately Jodi and Elliot have their confrontation. When the cosmopolitan Jodi, used to Elliot’s boyfriends since he divorced her mother years ago, tell him she doesn’t mind his toy boys but that it is inappropriate to consider someone so much younger his partner, Elliot counters with the fact that at 70 he has the right to want a relationship that makes him feel young again, even if that is a result of sex and he can afford the price. To Jodi’s plaintive cry, “What is so great about hot?,” Elliot reminds her that everything including his life and his house has been paid for by hot.
While the cast is uniformly excellent, they can’t make these unpleasant, self-entitled people likable. As Jodi, Menzel dominates the stage whether she is reminiscing about how her life turned out or complaining about her father’s 20-year-old boyfriend. Jack Wetherall with his weather-beaten look makes Elliot Isaac a credibly controlling authority figure used to always getting his own way, but also cool and distant from his own family. Making his New York stage debut and with the physique to make Trey believable, Will Brittain is able to endow him with sympathetic qualities even when we suspect he is interested in Elliot only for his money. His buff body and tight skin is much in evidence, particularly in the scene when he appears in nothing but a black jock strap from the Elliot Isaac clothing line.
As the gay grandson Benjamin, Eli Gelb has a good deal in common with Harmon’s Jordan (played by Gideon Glick) in his Significant Other. Both are comfortable with their gayness as well as searching for their roots via their grandparents. (Benjamin has chosen to study in Budapest because that is where his grandparents left before the Holocaust). But although Gelb’s Benjamin certainly has more self-knowledge, he is unable to keep him from being a sort of gay stereotype in the limp wrist manner, just as Jordan was. Stephen Carrasco and Cynthia Mace make their presence felt as Elliot’s two visible servants, Carrasco as the fortyish male houseboy who was once Elliot’s lover, and Mace as the efficient Hungarian housekeeper, both of whom telegraph their thoughts to the audience.
The production design is a major element in the play. Lauren Helpern’s coolly elegant two story living room is a designer’s dream in shades of gray, something one would expect to see in Architectural Digest, but somewhat unreal to live in. Jess Goldstein’s costumes seem to have also been color coordinated with the set as the characters mainly wear grey, black or white, with an occasional hint of red. The lighting by Pat Collins is as chilly as the décor while Eric Shimelonis’ jazz piano variations effectively set the tone for the play.
Aukin who has directed both Harmon’s Bad Jews and Admissions gets a good deal of mileage out of such running jokes as those about Botox and the living room sofa while moving his cast effectively around the set. While extremely entertaining and absorbing both for its raunchy sexual language and its witty sophisticated repartee, Skintight, like Harmon’s last play, Admissions, appears to intend to go deeper into its subject than it actually does. It never clears up the question of whether Trey is really attracted to Elliot or his money of which he has plenty to spare. Ultimately, the plotting is a little too neat and the characters too self-absorbed for it to be more than an entertainment on a serious subject.
Skintight (through August 26, 2018)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
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