Idina Menzel, Skintight, and the Market Value of Desire
Romantic ideals clash with reality in Joshua Harmon's newest play.
"I don't care too much for money," goes the old Beatles song, "and money can't buy me love." As that song's composer enjoys his billion dollars and third wife (18 years his junior), I wonder if he's had second thoughts about that; because, of course, the currency of a stable relationship isn't love, but exchange — of money, prestige, beauty, companionship, and sex. Joshua Harmon takes on this contradiction between what we do and what we say about love in Skintight, his new play at Roundabout Theatre Company. It's liable have you running out of the theater and into the Botox clinic.
More precious in the American mind than true love is the idea that you can have it all: family, love, and success. No playwright in recent years has attacked that notion more vociferously than Harmon: He's taken on the indissolubility of family in Bad Jews, cast a shadow of doubt over there's-someone-for-everyone optimism in Significant Other, and obliterated the idea that education is a tool for social advancement in Admissions. Harmon charms his audiences with witty dialogue and recognizable characters before slapping us back to reality with penetrating observations about the hypocritical myths that undergird American society. In Skintight, that would be the cliché that it's what's inside that counts, even as everything in our culture demonstrates the exact opposite.
Appropriately, Skintight takes place in a multimillion dollar West Village townhouse owned by Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall), a major fashion designer. He was raised by poor Hungarian immigrants in Brooklyn, but has become rich by selling an iconic American look (he fondly remembers the line outside his Budapest store after the fall of Communism). Now 69, he lives comfortably and takes regular motorcycle rides with his 20-year-old Greek God of a "partner" Trey (Will Brittain). Elliot is basically Calvin Klein: a designer that stands for America not just in his clothing line, but because he has lived the American dream. He also has a thing for twinks.
This is distressing to his daughter, Jodi (Idina Menzel), whose husband has just left her for a younger woman. She has fled to New York to organize a surprise 70th birthday party for dad. Her son, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), has flown back from Budapest (where he's studying queer theory and Yiddish culture) just to attend, even though he's not close to Elliot. Benjamin has an odd twinge of recognition when he sees Trey. What does it mean when grandpa is dating someone your own age?
Under the surefooted direction of Daniel Aukin, every element works to create the habitat of someone who values beauty above all else: Lauren Halpern's slate-gray and stainless-steel set is aesthetically pleasing, though it doesn't appear hospitable. Pat Collin creates convincing natural light streaming in from a perfectly manicured garden. In one scene, Jess Goldstein costumes Trey in an Elliot Isaac jockstrap, a literal brand on his prized possession.
The performances are similarly clear, with the actors embracing type in the early part of the play: Holding his limp wrist aloft like a queenly scepter, Gelb speaks down his nose with an affected lilt. He's the foil of Trey, whom Brittain embodies with rough swagger. Menzel plays Jodi with the aggressive quirkiness and comic timing of a sitcom character, stuffing her mouth with a croissant like Grace Adler. Wetherall is coldly aloof as Elliot, as if he's somewhere else in his mind — anywhere but with his disappointing and entitled progeny.
Our view of these characters evolves over the course of the play as their humanity emerges. Aukin brilliantly uses Elliot's two servants to comment on the lives of those normal people who daily travel to the land of the super-rich: Orsolya (Cynthia Mace, hilariously portraying the persistence of an elderly Hungarian maid) and Jeff (Stephen Carrasco with a bitter sneer), who once dated Elliot, which is certainly why Trey hates him. Trey's disdain doesn't nearly rise to the level of Jodi's for him, though: She sees Trey as a dangerous presence leeching off of her father (and perhaps her future inheritance). But where Jodi sees a grifter, Elliot sees a resourceful young man who managed to claw his way from the bottom using whatever talent he's got — kind of like himself.
Harmon leaves open the possibility that this mutual admiration is actually a stable basis for enduring love. More thrillingly, he complicates this story about the market value of beauty with issues of class, lust, resentment, and the awfully unsavory behavior that the American dream encourages in its aspirants and victors. Skintight isn't just a cynical take on the state of love in 2018; it's a hard look in the mirror that reveals more lines and cracks than any of us would care to own.