REVIEW: Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight”

REVIEW: Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight”

The fact of being young and beautiful is not an achievement.  There is, of course, craft to be found in self-presentation and discipline to admire in personal fitness and diet, but the execution of both, regardless of result, inevitably springs from a benchmark of age.

In Joshua Harmon’s new play, “Skintight”, which opened at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway on June 21st, one character posits that attraction is the basis of all relationships, and that being “hot” is everything.  It’s hard to disagree in a society that so values and celebrates the state of being “hot”.  It’s also not a particularly new concept.  After all, as another character points out, Greek mythology gives us Helen of Troy—a woman so beautiful she provokes a war. 

“Skintight” offers a battle of its own as it entertainingly surveys the ways in which our notions of beauty and age shape and shade all our relationships.  Mr. Harmon lightly wrestles with these ideas employing the same piercing humor and humanity that made his earlier plays—“Admissions”, “Significant Other”, and “Bad Jews”—so enjoyable and thought-provoking.  This effort is of a part, but remains too skin-deep to make the same impact.

The play is set entirely in the sleek and modern two-story living room of “fictional” fashion mogul Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall)’s West Village townhouse, a location as cold and clinical as its owner (set by Lauren Helpern).  Elliot’s late-40s daughter, lawyer Jodi Isaac (Idina Menzel), makes a surprise visit from Los Angeles on the eve of his 70th birthday, and is in tears within the first minute of the play.  Jodi’s husband has left her for a 24 year old “spinner” named Misty (or is it Madison?), but she’s self-absorbedly come to the wrong place for comfort.  Widowed and none-too-interested in the role of father and grandfather, Elliot’s new “partner”, unbeknownst to Jodi, soon bros his way into the room and the clash is palpable. 

At 20 years old, Oklahoma born Trey (Will Brittain*) is 50 years junior to Elliot, and an undeniable hunk.  Jodi’s seen them come and go over the years—Jeff (Stephen Carrasco), a former fling, still works as a servant in the house—but Elliot’s never claimed to have a “partner” before.  That Trey is a former porn star who is rough around the edges, eschews sexual labels (“I’m not anything. I’m just Trey.”), and is the same age as Jodi’s gay son, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), adds further grist to the conflict.  Spoiled, neurotic, and femme, sporting a fro and a mask of angsty disinterest that belies a wounded interior, Benjy is on leave from studying queer theory abroad in the family’s ancestral homeland of Hungary, and soon joins this impromptu and auspicious reunion. 

The character of Elliot is a very thinly veiled Calvin Klein, right down to the straight, 20-something former porn star boyfriend, single daughter, and Hungarian lineage—hence the quotes around “fictional”.  Jodi can’t imagine her father loves Trey, and views Trey as nothing more than a birdbrained gold-digger living high on Elliot’s success.  Meanwhile, Elliot is at an age where he cannot care less what others think of him or his romances, and Benjy’s burgeoning self, reflecting the audience, is at once repulsed and intrigued by the whole scenario.  For his part, Trey ends up being smarter than he looks, acts, and sounds, and carries his own damaged past while donning a jock strap, and nothing more, for a good portion of act one.

Thankfully, Mr. Harmon sketches characters who are never boring or one-dimensional as they trade barbs, exploring the play’s themes of aesthetic value, age, and money, and their impact upon relationships.  Unfortunately, not much is neatly said about any one of those themes, though director Daniel Aukin does a fine job unfolding the action and keeping pace.  Ms. Menzel, best known as a musical theatre actor (“Rent”, “Wicked”), makes a rare stage play appearance in a role tailor made for her talent.  She’s sly, quick, and funny, lending an energy and acerbically winsome nature absent elsewhere.  As a counterbalance, Mr. Wetherall’s Elliot is quiet, weary, and somewhat mysterious from start to finish.  The standout performance comes from Mr. Gelb, though, as Mr. Harmon’s signature self-conscious ball of Jewish neuroses.

The play comes to a head in two monologues near the end in which Elliot makes an impassioned case for physical beauty as valuable in its own right, with Jodi dismissing such a view as nothing more than lust.  Like the debate it seeks to encapsulate, there is little resolution in “Skintight”, nor any grand statements, only more questions, and a steady stream of laughs.  The parts, however enjoyable, do not add up to create a greater, memorable whole, fading as surely as the waistmark left behind by a pair of Calvin Klein, er Elliot Isaac, underwear.

Bottom Line: Joshua Harmon’s new play, “Skintight” at Roundabout Theatre Company, entertainingly surveys the ways in which our notions of beauty and age shape and shade all our relationships.  Idina Menzel makes a rare stage play appearance in a role tailor made for her talent, but this play offers little resolution, only more questions, and a steady stream of laughs—enjoyable, but largely forgettable.

Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre
at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY  10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: June 21, 2018
Final Performance: August 26, 2018

*at the performance I attended, the role of Trey was performed by the equally-as-hunky Paul Emile, who likely was performing the role for the first time, and was excellent—a testament to the unheralded skill and hard work of understudies!

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tl;dr for June 19th