“Age before Beauty; Beauty before Age”
Once again, as with the currently running Log Cabin, a crowd-pleasing playwright with a whipsaw wit is poking and prodding beneath the skin of our sexual preferences and prejudices to see how much they can get away with before the audience cries “Enough!” I refer to Skintight, Joshua Harmon’s entertaining but thinly plotted new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. Harmon, whose Bad Jews, Significant Other, and Admissions have, over the past half dozen years, propelled the 35-year-old dramatist to theatrical prominence, suggests, among other things that, regardless of what conventional society thinks of the unconventional nature of a personal relationship, it’s okay as long as it hurts no one and those involved are in love.
Skintight, often very funny and often very not, tells of Jodi Isaac (Broadway diva Idina Menzel, glowing in a non-singing role), an attractive California lawyer in her late 40s, whose husband has left her for a much younger woman, and who flies in to New York so she can celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. Dad, no ordinary septuagenarian, is Elliot Isaac, a rich, world-famous fashion designer in the Calvin Klein-Ralph Lauren mold.
As portrayed by Jack Wetherall, he’s as trim as a model, wears cool, black duds, including sleeveless shirts that show off his arms, has dyed blond hair, and feeds his ravenous vanity with regular shots of Botox. His age-defying appearance and disinterest in his own birthday milestone notwithstanding, Elliot, like his daughter, is very much aware that the years are slipping by.
The rather glum Elliot, not thrilled about Jodi’s presence, lives with his 50-years-younger partner, Trey (Will Brittain), a ripped, 20-year-old, Southern-accented, street-smart but undereducated boy toy from Oklahoma. Their pad is a magazine layout-worthy duplex on the West Village’s Horatio Street, which prompts a string of Horatio Alger references. These not only tie that 19th-century writer’s rags-to-riches stories to the love affair of Trey and Elliot—who even gifts the youth with a Rolex worth close to half a million bucks—but to Elliot’s background as the Jewish child of Hungarian immigrants (like Calvin Klein’s father), who rose from Brooklyn poverty to international fame and fortune.
Also present is Jodi’s 20-year-old, trés gay son, Benji (Eli Gelb), taking courses in queer studies and Yiddish culture in, if you can buy it, Budapest, Hungary, where he’s gone to find his Nazi-decimated family’s roots. Harmon mines this material for laughs, sometimes unearned, as when Jodi, despite being a successful lawyer, must continuously be reminded that Benji’s studying Yiddish culture doesn’t mean he knows Yiddish. Finally, there are the comic maid, Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), conveniently Hungarian; and the handsome, robotically polite butler, Jeff (Stephen Carrasco), about whose own past with Elliot we eventually learn a thing or two.
The two-act script, which runs two hours and 15 minutes, is mainly about character interactions, covering such things as Jodi's power struggle with Trey (her own son's age) for Elliot’s affections and her efforts to bring a sense of normalcy into the dysfunctional family dynamic. There's also Trey’s sexual ambivalence to consider, revealed during a scene when, wearing nothing but a jock strap, he’s alone with the shy but very curious Benji, who knows of Trey’s past as a porn actor.
Harmon also covers the much-discussed difference between inner versus and outer beauty; Hungarian anti-Semitism; the transactional nature of all human relationships, loving and otherwise; Trey’s defense of his challenged integrity; and Elliot’s jealousy of his own grandson. While a disproportionate number of laughs are generated by penis jokes, a couple of them are worth waiting for.
Skintight is mildly daring in its depiction of a love affair between two men five decades apart. Elliot’s heartfelt explanation of what he feels, which comes late in the play and feels anything but organic, is largely based on his attraction to Trey’s youthful beauty, to his very “hotness.” Earlier, he waxes poetic on his lover’s skin, which he describes as if it were sheets to sleep on (a chilling image, one might think, for the son of Holocaust survivors). It not only alters the light comic atmosphere but could as easily be used to defend pedophilia. Shave a couple of years from Trey and the audience would include members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association.
Lauren Halpern’s setting for Elliot’s modernist townhouse, with its ultra-high, skylighted ceiling and floating, concrete staircase (the site of some sprightly sight gags) set against granite-like walls, is an eye-popper. One wonders, though, why, given Elliot’s profession, not a single work of art is visible. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are perfect for the play’s fashion-conscious characters, and Pat Collins does her lighting magic to capture the changing moods and times of day.
Under Daniel Aukin’s clever, insightful direction, Menzel proves to be a deft, charismatic comedienne, although Jodi can be gratingly self-centered. Wetherall plays the gay Elliot straight, which is to say he maintains a sense of dignified reality and never overplays.
The curly-mopped Gelb, using a delightfully fey singsong delivery, makes the spoiled Benji both knowing and sweetly innocent, while the muscular Brittain—in a role that calls to mind Billy Magnussen’s Spike in Durang’s Masha, Vanya, Sonia, and Spike—is a find, nicely balancing the role’s outré, and even obnoxious, elements with convincing sincerity. And both Mace and Carrasco make the most of their secondary roles.
If you’re looking for something lightly amusing with familiar social issues coursing beneath a polished veneer of sexual naughtiness, Skintight should prove a good fit.
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Through August 26