Theater

Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight” Scrutinizes the Rules of Attraction

by

Maybe I’ve just come to accept that all of Joshua Harmon’s characters are going to be whiny, selfish scolds. Or perhaps Skintight, his latest, is just a better play than Admissions. The latter, a boarding-school satire produced last spring at Lincoln Center, struck me as a smug exposé of white, liberal hypocrites whose privilege was threatened by the racial parity they’d long championed. Admissions felt potted and pat, an excuse for Harmon to write a breathless jeremiad against identity politics delivered by an angsty teen. Both it and this new one were staged by Harmon collaborator Daniel Aukin. The jerks in Skintight — a dramedy about family, transgenerational lust, and the fashion world — are no less jerky, but somehow, they’re more endearing. Maybe it’s because they’re hotter. Concupiscence forgives much.

Jodi (a frisky, relaxed Idina Menzel) has made a surprise arrival at the gorgeous West Village duplex of her fashion-mogul dad, Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall). He’s about to turn seventy, and does not want to be reminded, but Jodi insists on a party. She’s also fleeing an embarrassing situation on the West Coast: Her ex is marrying a busty gal half his age. “While we were having, like, the best sex of our adult lives,” Jodi angrily muses, “this person was getting her diaper changed, because she didn’t yet possess the motor skills to wipe her own ass.”

Jodi invites along her son, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), a gay millennial majoring in queer studies and forever exasperated by his doting mom. Stirring the pot of this wealthy, assimilated Jewish clan is Trey (Will Brittain), a Southern slab of beefcake whom Elliot is dating. Jodi is used to her father’s flings with young guys, but this one is different. Trey is her son’s age, but unlike Benjamin, he grew up longing for the finer things in life. He’s a homewrecker with a porn past wishing Elliot would put a ring on it.

Both the outline of Elliot’s career and his entanglement with Trey calls to mind Calvin Klein’s fling with adult-film vet Nick Gruber in 2011 (humorously decried in the Voice by Michael Musto). Like Klein, Elliot is ambiguously gay and the descendent of Hungarian Jews. Like Gruber, Trey prefers not to say whether he’s gay or straight — he’s not into “labels.” That doesn’t stop him from parading around the apartment wearing nothing but a jock strap and plopping down on the couch next to a horrified Jodi and bemused Benjamin. A lesser writer might take an Orton-esque tack and have Trey separately seduce mother and son, but Harmon is slyer than that. He’d rather watch these sleek sharks circle each other than pounce.

Skintight doesn’t offer much in the plot department. It’s more of a bitchy, breezy group portrait, centered around the theme of youth: Why we covet it, what to do when it fades, how to draw a line between love and lust — and does it all even matter? No really surprising answers are forthcoming, but Harmon makes the neurotic gossip and power-grabbing fun to watch. His writing is a tad more humane, and less schematic, than in previous work, as seen in the cat-and-mouse midnight confab between Trey and Benjamin or a nakedly raw monologue from Elliot in defense of pursuing young flesh and the transactional basis of all relationships. (Wetherall’s flinty dignity anchors his scenes, and even provides a heft of pathos.)

It’s a pleasure to see Menzel lark about in a vehicle that plays to her comic strengths, and Gelb pushes the fey brat routine to the edge of caricature without tipping over. Designer Lauren Halpern’s stylish, bilevel set draws the requisite half-liter of drool from us urban peasants in our dingy studios. There’s understated but often hilarious support from Stephen Carrasco and Cynthia Mace as two put-upon servants. And Brittain’s white-trash gigolo, while a transparent gay-for-pay grifter and boor, is pure life force, strutting about and admiring his own ass, pitting his aged lover’s family members against each other. Refreshingly, however, no one in this boulevard comedy is the baddie, and no one’s the hero. The only villain in Harmon’s world is time, which withers beauty and drains libido. Oh, God, it’s too depressing; pass the Botox.

Skintight
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
212-719-1300
roundabouttheatre.org
Through August 26

Most Popular