SKINTIGHT at Geffen Playhouse
When late-fortysomething Jodi Isaac flees LA on the red eye to surprise her famous fashion icon father in his posh West Village marble-and-chrome-heavy townhome on his 70th birthday, her reasons for the intrusion, especially since her crispy and clearly non-nurturing dad has expressed emphatically that he wants a peaceful landmark passage without people or fanfare, it’s clearly suspicious.
It seems her recent soul-shattering divorce has resulted in her ex’s announcement that he is about to marry the comely young lassie that broke them up, someone named Missy or Misty or Madison—Jodi Isaac (Idina Menzel) refuses to remember which—a 24-year-old fitness devotee she prefers to refer to only as The Little Spinner. More than wishing her dear ol’ dad a wonderful milestone as he passes into his eighth decade, Elliot (Harry Groener) knows better since his neurotic offspring doesn’t appear to do much of anything without an ulterior motive.
So begins Joshua Harmon’s achingly insightful, scathingly bitter, hilariously funny contemporary comedy Skintight, arriving at the Geffen Playhouse after a successful run last season at the Roundabout in New York. Along for the ride with Menzel in her celebrated and rare non-singing performance are the show’s original director Daniel Aukin, two of her original costars, and the production’s precision design team, first and foremost including Lauren Helpern’s massive and startingly grand Manhattan mansion set which must have been a bear to transport across country.
At first, Menzel seems to still be playing Elphaba, as though she’s once again been cast as a wicked witch, albeit without the green makeup this time. Her Jodi is a mess, so raw and fragile and annoyingly obnoxious it doesn’t take long to make us wish the incredible cool and patient Elliot would tell his self-absorbed offspring to hop right back on a flight back to LaLaLand. Yet, as much as it’s a temptation to shout out from the audience for her to shutthefuggup, we soon begrudgingly begin to find her oddly lovable—though that doesn’t mean I’d want to invite her over for Thanksgiving dinner.
Groener, a true LA theatrical treasure in the classiest of ways, is a perfect foil for Menzel’s frantic shrillness as her patient stuffedshirt of a father whose wish to be alone and happily family-free on his birthday is understandable—especially considering his family. And as he observes through clenched teeth as Jodi coos and chirps patronizingly on about his Happy Day, turning 70 is not a prompt for rolling a Veniero’s birthday cake into the dayroom of the resthome on a cart. “It’s not an achievement to not die,” he tells her dryly.
Although Jodi immediately surmises his lack of glee seeing her unexpectedly is due to hitting the botox a little too hard and has nothing to do to her planning a family dinner or her announcing the imminent arrival of her spoiled and gravely insecure son Benjamin (Eli Gelb, gratefully reprising his showstopping turn at the Roundabout), what Isaac was actually trying to avoid was the entrance of his uber-buff and swaggering 20-year-old live-in boyfriend Trey (Will Brittain, the other impressive transplantee from the New York cast), an ex-pornstar who just happens to be the exact same age as Benjamin and loves to make jokes about what a jawbreaker Isaac has hidden in his satin pajama bottoms.
“Everyone is marrying someone younger... what kind of message is that to send to you and [your brother]?” Jodi wails to Benjamin in her classic patented JAP whine. “Um… I don’t know,” he answers with a graceful hand running through his curly locks. “Stay younger?”
Harmon’s latest comedic bashing of the hypocrisies running rampant through the emotional trials of modern life involves our obsession with youth and beauty. Jodi will not admit she isn't as young and attractive as she might have once been, but not even the arrival of a practitioner to deliver a little squirt of rejuvenation to the foreheads of virtually every character in the play—including Isaac’s loyal and professionally inobtrusive servants Orsolya and Jeff (Kimberly Jurgen and Jeff Skowron), who tiptoe quietly down from the upstairs bedroom area with the same tissue held tightly to their foreheads as sported by the other members of the family—will sidetrack Jodi’s mission to stay as miserable as humanly possible.
Gelb is golden as the awkward but bratty Benjamin, who is on hiatus from his semester studying Queer Studies in Budapest, a place, he is quick to point out, where their family originated before fleeing the tigers and the fleas. From sewing garments in the impoverished family’s modest New York basement, Isaac turned their poverty into an enormous fashion empire, but his decision to ignore the fate of the Hungarian Jews in favor of commerce is something that drives Benjamin nuts as he passes the compulsory ELLIOT ISAAC flag store on his way to class every day.
Although some of Harmon’s most volatile fireworks come in confrontations between Jodi and Trey, as she very pointedly insists her father’s boytoy is not a family member and he repeatedly reminds her he lives there and is in every sense Elliot’s partner, the most dangerously combustive scene ends Act One and features the near-seduction of Trey by his lover’s grandson.
When Trey enters the living room late at night wearing nothing but an ELLIOT ISAAC jockstrap, much to the horror of Jodi and the vaguely-concealed delight of Benjamin, the two 20-year-olds find themselves alone when Jodi head off to bed to escape sitting next to her dad’s near-naked paramour. After Benjamin has moved a little too close and becomes bold enough to question the guy about the sexual part of the relationship with his grandfather—to which Trey blithely replies, “Well, 20-year-old dick tastes better than 70-year-old dick”—Benjamin makes a move to check out the snakebite scar way too high on Trey’s inner thigh just as Elliot appears at the top of the staircase.
Brittain is impressive as the quintessential lost kid from Oklahoma tossed around and presumably eaten alive by the hungry vultures before landing a wealthy older man willing to buy him a $450,000 Rolex, bringing a complex and touching vulnerability to what could become a glaring stereotype featuring someone cast more for his physicality than being able to find such nuance as an actor.
Of course, this didn’t keep the New York Post from declaring that Brittain’s prominent buttocks stole the show from Menzel, not an easy task even when she isn’t belting her signature “Let It Go” from Frozen. “Off-Broadway’s long been the place to discover fresh faces,” the Post’s Barbara Hoffman wrote. “Now and then, along comes something cheekier: a dashing derriere.” I need not say more, although I do concur.
Aukin guides Skintight’s dynamic ensemble cast with suitable tightness and an elegant hand, yet he is never afraid to let his players take their time, including in that Act One ending when Brittain ascends the townhome’s steep staircase in a slowed-down, balletic ritual or when, near the end of the play, Trey offers a shocking proposal that leaves Groener and the others in stark-still silence for an intentionally extended period of time.
This is Harmon’s third turn sharing his talents with the world in general and the Geffen in particular (the others being Significant Other and Bad Jews) and may I say I adore his plays and believe he’ll be a major influence on the future of theatre of this century. Still, there is at this point a clearly evident theme in the evolution of his work, an underlying anger below the sharply clever humor that occasionally proves so weighty that it gets in the way.
I’m not sure if Harmon was raised around and is personally haunted by overpowering women in his life such as Jodi Isaac and the religiously obsessive and equally controlling sister Daphna Fegenbaum in his Bad Jews, but as comfortable as he is giving voice to such characters, one might wonder after three turns if they could be echoes of his own past. Whether or not this is just a natural perception due to the currently available body of his work, in the future I hope he’ll move on and explore something new.
And although I believe Skintight is a sharp and brutally honest new play, I have to also say I was disappointed in the missed opportunity inherent in Elliot’s eleventh-hour confession explaining to his daughter why he loves Trey. Groener delivers an admittedly mesmerizing monologue about the man’s obsessive attraction to the younger man’s beauty and, kinda creepily, later croons to him as he caresses his smoothly taut young shoulder that he wishes he could “sleep in a bed with sheets made from your skin.”
See, if Elliot’s love for Trey is truly based solely on deeply drinking in his youth and appreciating how vital the kid makes him feel, it personally makes me sad, especially since, for the last seven years, I have had the privilege of experiencing the most amazing love of my life with someone 42 years my junior.
It’s a shame Harmon feels the character of Elliot has to answer with such musty and platitudinous stereotypical behavior when this would be such a glorious opportunity to express how such a love could go beyond the physical. I certainly think my own partner is the most beautiful and sexiest man I know, but what I love about him—and visa-versa, I have come to trust—has very little to do with appearance or piggybanking on someone else’s youthfulness.
In a play about people’s obsession with youth and beauty, it would be far more uplifting if, instead of the arbitrary final tableau meant to add a little note of hope for the future of the Isaac family members, putting an inauthentic button on an otherwise insightful story, how much more interesting and meaningful it would have been if Joshua Harmon had chosen to end Skintight showing the love Elliot and Trey share is ultimately the most real and genuine relationship in the entire play.
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