Is Beauty Only Skintight Deep or Is Love the Same as Muscular Lust?

0085r2_Eli Gelb and Idina Menzel in SKINTIGHT, photo by Joan Marcus 2018

The Review: Roundabout’s Skintight

By Ross

Beauty and desire are on full display in Roundabout‘s intriguing new play by Joshua Harmon (Admissions) at the Laura Pels Theatre. The smart, funny, but clumsily crafted play is putting forward a few compelling arguments, one being whether beauty is only Skintight deep? Or is it simply just skin deep? Where is beauty ranked in desirability and emotionality in regards to relationships, love, and true devotion? Is youthful beauty more important to a person as they get older or should we look deeper and value the internal more? Is it terrible if we look past internal connection placing smooth skin at a higher level? Is that adage a pathway drug to feeling younger because of who you’re with? Or can that youthfulness be found internally without your partner reflected back the Skintight beauty of youth? What is the connection between the old much talked about themes of love and money when it comes to May-December romance? Or is that concept irrelevant to what is really important in the end, and is there anything that is purely on one side or another? Who’s got the idea right, father or daughter? And who’s lying to themselves about it all? So so many questions put forward in this eye of the beholder play, and in some ways, the questions swirl out one after the other into the world, monologued and argued about, with witty and clever tidbits by all. The precise writing is glorious, but the problem lies in the end result, because as fervent as the questions are put forward, they are not really being answered or even hypothesized before the next one comes spilling forward. Brilliantly, and with great humor, but questions unanswered don’t really add up to much in the end.

Directed briskly and efficiently by Daniel Aukin (MTC’s Fulfillment Center), Skintight dares to wander into the cleanly designed modern home of Elliot Isaac, portrayed with a cool nod to the legendary designer Calvin Klein by the detailed set designer Jack Wetherall (TFANA’s Henry VI) with a critical eye.  He’s a self-made clothing designer whose name is stamped on every piece of clothing he designs from gowns to underwear, owning the sleek lines and the American youthful glow they give off. He’s all about beauty and style, and his home, designed with a steely eye to clean lines and emotionless simplicity by set design Lauren Helpern (LCT’s 4000 Miles) and lighting designer Pat Collins (Broadway’s Doubt) reflect that same superficial embrace that has angularly erased all warmth and coziness from his home and his persona.  It’s not surprising then, given the space, that when his magnificently anguished daughter, Jodi, portrayed by the wise and beautiful Idina Menzel (Broadway’s Rent, Wicked, If/Then) arrives on his doorstep unannounced, she doesn’t get the warm and empathetic fatherly hug she so desperately announces she needs. “I know you hate surprises…Can you just be excited to see me?” Deep down inside, it is clear that she is quite aware that she needs to let it go (OK, forgive me, I just had to) this idea of fatherly affection, but she still falsely clings to the hope that with age, maybe, just maybe, her father might finally find a way to embrace and love her. Foolish girl, this gentleman will never change, as self interest adoration always triumphs within a man like Calvin Klein, I mean Elliot Isaac.

skingtight_Idina Menzel in SKINTIGHT, photo by Joan Marcus 2018_preview

Looking healthy and vibrant (wonderfully suited costumes by Jess Goldstein), Jodi launches into a thrilling self-pitying take down of her circumstance, clearly digging her own grave with every jealousy fueled remark about youth and beauty.  We all see the foundations of conflict being erected with every delicious dig, but she is clearly on fire, still freshly bruised and battered, figuratively, by the upcoming remarriage of her ex-husband to a very perky young spin instructor, Misty or Madison, or whatever. She needs escape and has decided, pretty much from the land called denial, that she might find some comfort curled up surrounded by her father’s clean cool lines and modern furnishing. As reinforcement, she has asked her detached and effeminate gay son, Benjamin, played by the very funny and connected Eli Gelb (EST’s Ruth), to also join her at her father’s house, pretending to all that this is about his 70th birthday, but we all see the ruse. Benjamin is in town for his father’s engagement party, having flown over from Budapest where he is studying abroad in the country of their Jewish family’s origin. Benjamin’s character is a much-needed altered angle for observation and insight, one I wanted to be taken more seriously and expanded upon, but his viewpoint is secondary to Jodi’s. What really matters is the set-up we have been anticipating and the one Jodi wasn’t prepared for; the moment when she is greeted with casual disregard by the very young and very buff new boyfriend of her father, the southern twang-drenched charmer Trey, portrayed almost too arrogantly by the handsome and very fit Will Brittain (“Kong: Skull Island“).

0090r_Eli Gelb and Will Brittain in SKINTIGHT, photo by Joan Marcus 2018

It’s a great set-up, this powder keg of emotional upheaval, especially as the flame that lights the fireworks is the testy and button-pushing Trey.  He loves to flick lemon juice into the paper cuts that are exposed on Jodi’s needy skin, stinging her with every gesture and power play.  It’s not like she doesn’t deserve it. She is righteousness personified when it comes to Trey and her father, breathing out old ideas that I’m not even sure she believes. “What matters is who somebody is on the inside“, she tells her son, to which he replies, “I think that message got lost like somewhere around the war over Helen of Troy“. Jodi is the cool mom to Benjamin, but is totally prickly towards Trey, just as he is to her.  Throw in the existence of another one of Elliot’s young lovers, Jeff, portrayed capriciously by Stephen Carrasco (Broadway’s Anastasia), and the examination is now complete, as it is clear he has been passed down, most likely because of age, to play basically the butler to his ex and the newer shinier version of himself. The conflicts all seems very plausible but not very realistic, if that makes any sense, mainly because Trey, as performed and written is not as likable as the infatuated Benjamin tries to proclaim.  He’s a “good guy” once you get to know him, he attempts to tell his mother, but there isn’t much evidence to that. Trey even proclaims that he’ll behave when asked, “a perfect gentleman” he says, but is the exact opposite pushing the ‘muscular youthfulness versus familial connection’ battle to its breaking point. He has quite the bullish temper, especially towards Jeff, and a suspiciously deceitful quality that never helps bring us over to his side, thus making the arguments lopsided, forever leaning towards Jodi’s petulant platitudes rather than sitting somewhere in between on the curvy couch in Elliot Isaac labeled underwear.

0327r2_Eli Gelb and Idina Menzel in SKINTIGHT, photo by Joan Marcus 2018_preview

As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and somehow we are supposed to consider all the options of what love and connection can be. We are asked to accept the idea that the power of beauty can’t be denied, and that having Trey in Elliot’s life has made it better, all of which is true in someway or another, but is this something we want to embrace as more potent than family connection and more balanced internal love? The magnificently funny Cynthia Mace (Mint’s The Suitcase Under the Bed) playing the older Hungarian housekeeper, Orsolya states, “They are in love“, which Jodi, quickly and hilariously retorts with truth, “That’s not the word for it“. Harmon has constructed some pretty amazingly funny and smart scenes of connection between Benjamin and Trey, and Benjamin and Jodi, but it is in the climax of this overly long play between gay father and adult daughter where the debate is firmly presented. Elliot has a lot to say about aging and engagement, but it never rings deep enough.  “It’s hard to tell what he is feeling“, says one family member, as he has been “hitting the Botox really hard“. Witty, but ultimately a sad testament to life and engagement in our modern times. The writing floats along the superficial edges of beauty and connection, as we listen to Elliot attempt to portray the handsome Trey as a “good person“, but somehow only manages to speak of him as something to possess and utilize as an object, rather than a more detailed human being. They have a wonderfully sympathetic chemistry together, Elliot and Trey, believably affectionate at moments but tinged with maybe just a little too much jealousy and discomfort to think that this is anything deeper than what it appears. We don’t necessarily want to side with the peevish daughter, but we can’t help ourselves. Trey is just not likable or trustworthy enough to warm to, just like the main character in Harmon’s other gay play, Significant Other. There’s a whole lot of build up in this dysfunctional family dramedy with not enough of a solid meaningful resolution, no matter how pretty he looks in a jock strap.



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