Theater Review: SKINTIGHT (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 16, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


A weird dynamic takes over the house at Skintight, Joshua Harmon’s comedy, now at the Geffen Playhouse. In broad terms, it feels like a battle of the sexes — with men in the audience, straight and gay alike, cheering for Elliot (Harry Groener), a seventy-year-old billionaire clothier who defines love as something evanescent that depends on beauty and youth for propulsion. And women in the audience siding with Elliott’s forty-year-old daughter Jodi (Idina Menzel) who makes a passionate case for love as something created only from the cumulative power of loyalty and trust.

My sense of the audience’s allegiances is certainly a huge generalization, and as a point of information, I come down on the side of the women. But it does feel to me like playwright Harmon is interested in exploring the male/female dynamic. Interestingly, he does it with a family situation where the men desire one another and seemingly have no need for women at all. To them, lust is love. To Jodi, lust is love’s ultimate betrayal.

Idina Menzel plays a successful Los Angeles attorney whose husband has just dumped her for a spinning instructor in her early twenties. She arrives unexpectedly at her father’s West Village townhouse, ostensibly to celebrate his seventieth birthday, but badly in need of fatherly succor. This is not historically a part of their father-daughter dynamic.

Her twenty-year-old son, Benjamin arrives (Eli Gelb) and both mother and son are surprised to meet Elliott’s new romantic partner, twenty-year-old Trey (Will Brittain), a former gay porn actor. He’s a cheeky guy (in more ways than one) who showily behaves as if he is already one of the family. This annoys Jodi to no end, though through the course of the play we come to understand that she isn’t merely annoyed, she’s cut to the quick and deeply offended.

Benjamin is by turns appalled, fascinated, and ultimately attracted to Trey. It’s hard not to be. In the way of some extremely attractive people, Trey can’t help but flirt with just about everyone he meets — and with Benjamin, he does it while nearly naked. His skin is as intoxicating to Benjamin as it is to Elliott, who tells Trey at one point that he wishes he could make sheets out of his skin. It’s a fabulous moment — icky, revealing, and kind of hot.

Money, privilege, and entitlement (these are not necessarily the same things) are on full display as the characters attempt to find common ground. But they might as well be speaking different languages. They all use the word, “love” in profoundly different ways, seeking very different reassurances from the objects of their sexual and familial affection.

The actors are fantastic. Ms. Menzel opens the show with a nonstop barrage of hysteria and pain that makes us laugh, cry, and cringe all at once. She is a great stage star, the kind of talent that playwrights used to build shows around season after season. Like the way you read about Geraldine Page and Julie Harris’s stage careers. Yes, Menzel is that good.

Mr. Groener takes us more slowly into Elliott’s inner life, making the character seem logical and reasonable at first. By the time he’s talking about skinning Trey to make bed linens we get that he’s just as obsessed with himself as his daughter is with herself — he just communicates it in a different way. Groener’s physicality is incredible — there’s no extra movement — as if one gesture out of place will spoil the line of Elliott’s inseam.

That Mr. Brittain retains his dignity and likeability while using his astoundingly well-toned body as a kind of weapon is a testament to the actor’s inestimable skill. What could come across as vapid or a broad stereotype is instead multilayered and involving. I was not inclined to root for Trey, but I came away intrigued by the character’s affable party-while-you-can worldview.

Mr. Gelb owns Benjamin’s queenie, nerdy entitlement, and his comic timing is superb. For me, Benjamin is the most interesting of Harmon’s characters. For all his meta-infused irony and blasé attitude, he emerges as curious, sweet, and capable of empathy. He studies queer theory in Budapest and is seemingly the only one in the family who contemplates the enormity of the family’s ancestral escape from Hungary before World War II.

Kimberly Jürgen and Jeff Skowron play the often silent but ever mindful domestic staff. The way they are treated gives us insight into the more moneyed characters, but it also makes us think about our own relationships with people who do the things we don’t want to do for ourselves.

Director Daniel Aukin has an idiosyncratic, bold approach to pacing — he is unafraid to whiz through sections where others might pregnantly pause or to slow things down unexpectedly. Lauren Helpern’s scenic design is spare yet opulent — just perfect. It’s one of those townhouses where the façade is retained but the inside is gutted to make way for luxe modernity.

I’ve admired Harmon’s earlier plays, Bad Jews and Significant Other. In the best sense, he seems like an heir to Neil Simon’s comedy/drama crown. Skintight, though, feels like a happy leap forward. It is completely of this moment. The comic rhythms are familiar enough for the laughs to land, but the characters take us to messy places that might (or might not) have shocked Mr. Simon.

I don’t know that Mr. Simon ever envisioned a world where he would or could depict a mother and son watching their father and grandfather’s male lover doing gay porn. Me? I tried cocaine for the first time with my mom. Harmon’s world seems normal enough to me.

photos by Chris Whitaker

Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on October 6, 2019 EXTENDED to October 12, 2019
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

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