By EDWARD RUBIN
I did not see Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, which, by general consensus, is said to be his best play to date. But the last three Harmon plays that I did see, Significant Other, Admissions, and the still-running Skintight – were each a familiar mixture of comedy and drama containing everything and the kitchen sink. They come across less as a play and more akin to a TV sitcom in which the playwright’s comedic hand overrides most everything important that is being said.
A shrinking violet he isn’t.
I am especially thinking of Gideon Glick’s gay character in Significant Other, who laments the fact that all of his girlfriends, one by one, are getting married while he is still single. Then, there is white teenager Ben Adelman’s 17-minute yowl in Admissions, which deals with racial quota issues that keep him from being accepted at Harvard.
Both of these heartfelt outpourings, as TV sitcoms do, are housed among a plethora of comedic zingers. It is as if several shots of sugar are required to help the medicine go down.
Still, bitching and moaning aside, Harmon’s provocative and wonderfully wordily-written wailings, emotionally delivered by a major character or two, do give us something to mull over, which is more than most playwrights have to offer.
The star and calling card of Skintight, which gives the play its commercial legs, is Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked, If/Then) in her first non-singing role. As Jody Elliot, from her initial entrance which has her arriving unexpectedly on the eve of her long-divorced father’s 70th birthday, till the stage lights go down, Jody plays the diva card.
We know that trouble is on its way when her father, who also hates surprises, reminds his daughter, several times that he explicitly told her that he didn’t want to do anything special for his birthday.
But for the self-involved, demanding, and annoyingly unsympathetic Jody, whose ugliness is not exactly fun to watch during most of the play, his admonishment falls on deaf ears, as she has her own needs triggered by her 50-year old husband leaving her for a 24-year old spinning instructor, half her age, “with perky tits.” Of course, this leads to incessant worrying on Jody’s part, as to her own shelf life. What follows is much talk about youth and beauty, love and lust, coupled with jokes about whether or not she looks her age or needs Botox, all familiar chestnuts thrown into the mix when better ideas are not forthcoming. Also making several appearances throughout are references to asses and over-endowed male genitalia, the latter of which apparently runs in the family.
Shifting focus, Harmon does rescue the play a wee bit by showing Jody’s softer side, her loving, albeit overbearing relationship with her 20-year-old son Benjamin Cullen (an intensely believable Eli Gelb), whom she also invites to New York to celebrate her father’s birthday. But this soft side dwindles as her problematic relationship with her father Elliot Issac (nicely played by Jack Wetherall), a Calvin Klein type fashion mogul and his newly-acquired, mostly monosyllabic 20-year-old ex-porn star lover interestingly named Trey (Will Brittain), takes center stage.
Handsome and well-muscled, Trey ruffles the feathers of everybody in the house, cast and audience alike. Exacerbating the situation for both Benjamin, who has problems with his own sexual identity, and Jody, who dislikes her father’s partner and makes no bones about it, is Trey’s nonchalant nighttime appearance wearing only a jock strap. This later leads to visual jokes and audience laughter when Jody realizes she is sitting on the exact spot on the couch where the naked Trey had placed his butt and immediately changes her seat. While not exactly a member of the cast, I might add The Couch, where the majority of the play’s most important moments take place, as the starring piece of furniture in Lauren Helpern’s minimally designed, two-leveled set, the second level of which leads to several never-seen bedrooms.
As far as background checks, the playwright does supply a slim biographical history for each character, enough to enable the play to slide past without any drain on the brain. Elliot, though retired, is chairman emeritus and chief stockholder of his fashion company. He is also supporting Trey, whom he met in Florida in high style. An example of the lavish lifestyle Trey enjoys is the $450,000 Rolex that Elliot bought for him. Jody is a lawyer working for one of the largest law firms in Los Angeles. She has two sons, her favorite being Benjamin who is gay, self-conscious about his less-than-handsome looks and presently studying Queer Theory in Budapest.
While Benji, as his mother affectionately calls him, is interested in his Hungarian roots – the Issacs’ are originally from Budapest and a few were unable to make it out of Hungry before the Holocaust. Benjamin is also sexually interested in Trey, which does not go unnoticed by Jody or Elliot, or for that matter Trey. As far as Jody’s soon-to-be ex, he is summed up as a failing and “pretending” almond farmer with two weak knees and lots of hair coming out of his ears.
What little we know about Trey is that he now rides a motorcycle, has had a “really rough life” and he only participated in porn in order to eat. He is also, as he claims, still making it with girls. Other than his truly loving Elliot and the lifestyle this affords him, Trey’s early life is left up to our imagination.
The most compelling portion of the play, which temporarily obliterates all that comes before, takes place near the very end of the play. Here Elliot and Jody who has been vehemently against his relationship with Trey to the point of trying to wreck it, go head to head, a showdown so to speak, in which both characters discuss their own take on love and lust.
Elliot’s impassioned soliloquy and Jody’s response, different sides of the same coin – the take home part of the play – is worth the price of admission alone. Though both have their points of view, most certainly their respective ages, gender, and cultural norms have a lot to do with this.
Personally, I have to side with Elliot, as lust, which greases my joints, has always allowed me to move more freely – both mentally and physically – and is my favorite virtue. Like Elliot, I, too, “…want to wake up in the morning and smell sex. I want to taste it. I want to see it. I want to touch it. I want to feel it. Sex is life.”
This is also my story and I am sticking with it.
Skintight, opened on June 21, 2018 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, in New York. It is slated to close on August 26. (Previews began on May 31, 2018) Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the show runs two hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available by phone at 212- 719-1300. Directed by Daniel Aukin the cast is Will Brittain (Trey), Stephen Carrasco (Jeff), Eli Gelb (Benjamin Cullen), Cynthia Mace (Orsolya), Idina Menzel (Jodi Issac), Jack Wetherall (Elliot Issac).
Technical designs: Scenic Design: Lauren Helpern; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Pat Collins; Original Music & Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis.