In a country whose president marries younger models and reportedly hires government officials based on their looks, we could certainly benefit from some insights into Americans’ obsession with youth and beauty. “Skintight,” Joshua Harmon’s new comedy that is obviously inspired by fashion designer Calvin Klein and his love life, doesn’t provide any deep insights. Indeed, one could easily interpret the play as ultimately endorsing our culture’s superficiality, both explicitly through several characters’ monologues and implicitly through some of the choices director Daniel Aukin makes for the production at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. Yet, if “Skintight” is a surface entertainment, it does offer several surface pleasures — good acting, spot-on design, and the revelation of Idina Menzel’s talent for comic timing in her first non-musical performance on a New York stage.
Menzel portrays Jodi, a lawyer in L.A. in her forties who has been dumped by her husband for a woman half her age – a humiliating 24 years old. Jodie seeks solace by spontaneously taking the Red Eye cross-country to surprise her famous fashion designer father Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall) at his West Village townhouse right before his 70th birthday. Once there, she learns that her father has taken up with somebody even younger. Elliot’s “partner” Trey (Will Brittain), a handsome blond, is 20 years old — the same age as Elliot’s grandson Benj (Eli Gelb.) Benj is gay, and a queer studies major taking a semester abroad in Budapest. He had flown to LA for his father’s engagement party, and was now at his grandfather’s townhouse at his mother’s invitation.
“Skintight” places this quartet in Elliot’s coldly fashionable digs for a few comic set pieces. In one, Jodi and Benj are sitting on the couch in the living room late at night when Trey joins them to eat a snack, wearing only an Elliot Isaac-brand jockstrap. Jodi and Benj are aghast; then, when Jodi leaves in a huff to retire for the night, Benj is…turned on. And, given Brittain’s body, so may be a sizeable portion of the audience.
None of these characters are especially likeable; all come close to stereotypes. Yet it is to the playwright’s credit that he presents each of them with sympathy and with enough individuality to make them something more complicated than stock figures, helped along by the credible acting. Yes, Trey is a dim hunk who once acted in porn movies, but he seems genuinely embarrassed that he did so; yes, he happily accepts a $500,000 Rolex watch from Elliot, but his affection comes off as genuine.
Not much happens in “Skintight.” There are laughs, and there are debates about beauty and aging, lust and love. The laughs usually land; the debates don’t.
The production puts to wonderful use the central feature of Lauren Helpern’s set – the staircase. Benj has brought his dirty laundry home from Budapest, and we see the maid, Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), lugging his heavy luggage up that staircase to hilarious effect, a pointed comment about the characters’ privilege. Later, we see Jodi descend the staircase in a beautiful gown. As with Orsolya and the dirty laundry, Jodi is completely ignored.
“I’d like to have sheets made from your skin,” Elliot tells Trey at one point. At another,
Benj delivers a fascinating and funny riff on the anti-Semites in Hungary, the country that Elliot Isaac’s grandparents escaped, who think nothing of wearing Elliot’s name next to their skin. Both a suggest a potential by Harmon (author previously of “Bad Jews,” “Admissions” and “Significant Other”) for a depth that he doesn’t achieve in Skintight
Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater
Written by Josh Harmon, directed by Daniel Aukin. Set design by Lauren Helpern, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Pat Collins, sound design and original compositions by Eric Shimelonis, featuring Will Brittain, Stephen Carrasco, Eli Gelb, Cynthia Mace, Idina Menzel and Jack Wetherall.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Skintight is scheduled to run through August 26, 2018.