Entertainment » Theatre


by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 2, 2018
Eli Gelb, Idina Menzel and William Brittain in a scene from Joshua Harmon's "Skintight" (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Eli Gelb, Idina Menzel and William Brittain in a scene from Joshua Harmon's "Skintight" (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)  

Last year, dramatist Joshua Harmon ("Bad Jews," "Significant Other") gave us one of the most thought-provoking plays of the season, "Admissions," produced by Lincoln Center Theater, which boasted multi-dimensional characters and explored the gray areas of many current themes involving diversity as well as upper middle class liberalism.

His latest work, "Skintight," produced by Roundabout Theater, isn't anywhere near as ambitious and his characters are not as nuanced as those in "Admissions," but he does ask some pointed questions about class, sex, youth, and beauty. The problem is he mostly just skims the surface of these compelling topics.

NYC-based Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall) is a rich and world-renown fashion designer, obviously based on Calvin Klein, who is visited by his neurotic and needy California-based daughter, Jodi (Idina Menzel), on the eve of his 70th birthday. Jodi's husband has left her for a woman half her age so she's planned a small family gathering to mark the event and in hopes of alleviating her own anguish. Included in this celebration is her 20-year-old gay son Benjamin (Eli Gelb), flying in from Budapest where he's studying Queer Theory.

What Jodi doesn't expect is that Elliot has a hunky houseguest named Trey (Will Brittain) who is also 20-years-old, and sees himself as Elliot's partner. Jodi is apparently used to her father's hooking up with younger men but the dif here is that things seem serious with Trey, despite the 50-year age difference. This arrangement makes Jodi seethe with contempt, as does the fact that her son seems to also have the hots for Trey. "You can't fuck your stepfather's boyfriend, okay?" she commands after the two are caught in an almost intimate moment together.

Two servant characters round out the cast: an older Hungarian maid, Orsolya (Cynthia Mace, taking full slapstick advantage) and a fortysomething butler, Jeff (Stephen Carrasco) who has the dubious distinction of having once dated Elliot.

The plot is rich with comic potential but only some of it is actually mined. It's also rife with opportunities to examine notions of sexual attraction, love, and entitlement. Alas, "Skintight" never really scratches more than skin deep. A perfect example is a lovely extended scene between Trey and Benjamin, laced with tremendous sexual tension (they are, after all, the same age). Instead of exploring the truths that might emerge in their connection to one another as well as how far each might be willing to go--the playwright uses the soap opera device of interrupting the scene just as things become daring, robbing the audience of what could have been theatrical gold.

In addition, the curious fact that Jodi is surrounded by so many gay men, two in her immediate family, is never delved into.

Late in the play, Eliot delivers a monologue about why he's with Trey. These "hot is everything," "sex is life" musings are supposed to be revealing but instead, his eleventh-hour diatribe felt like a rather tedious and facile argument, especially coming from a man who has experienced so much in his life. And maybe that's Harmon's point, but it's not very illuminating.

The piece does move swiftly, thanks to Daniel Aukin's direction, although he seems to fixate on one particular area of the stage more than others.

The cast, with one exception, takes their roles and runs with them.

Menzel attacks Jodi like a sugar-starved child would devour a banana split. She's an absolute delight to watch, even when her character is doing and saying some pretty mean and judgmental things. The magic of Menzel is that even through bitter words and nasty looks, she reveals a daughter that has been hurt and neglected most of her life by a father more interested in his celebrity and sexual conquests than he is his own child. Menzel is a fluttering whirlwind of paradoxes but what is always obvious is the tremendous love she has for her son and the approval she is constantly seeking from her father.

Gelb is a casting coup since he exudes academia but also emits hints of wanting to break through that rigid wall and let loose, sexually anyway. He gives Benjamin the perfect affect and uncomfortable body movements.

Brittain makes the most of every scene he's in; transforming what could have been a one-note turn into a character with a cornucopia of complexities. We see and feel his ridiculous sexual magnetism first, but there's a scared little boy underneath as well and someone who wishes to better himself. He's certainly kinder than anyone he shares the stage with. The only person he mistreats is Jeff and that's only because he sees him as a real threat to his relationship. Trey is a modern-day Tennessee Williams character and Brittain makes a simple walk up the stairs take your breath away. Trey has a warmth, swagger and intense sensuality. The only thing he's missing is that element of danger.

Mace and Carrasco make the most with their roles. It's a shame that Harmon did not develop Jeff's story and his history with Eliot more since the possibilities were pregnant with potential.

Wetherall is the one misfire. His Elliot is an arrogant, possessive man who comes off as utterly foolish. We never really understand his motivations. Does he care at all about his daughter? Why does he seem to loathe his grandson so? And, beyond the superficially obvious, what are his feelings for Trey? Wetherall's one-note performance gives us no real answers and few clues.

"Skintight" is worth seeing for some stellar performances.

"Skintight" is playing at the Roundabout Theater Company's Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, through August 26, 2018. Tickets and info are available at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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