“Beauty is only skin deep” goes the old adage, which a bit of industrious Googling will reveal was coined by one Sir Thomas Overbury—writing about his wife, and apparently not so favorably—back in 1613. But that, playwright Joshua Harmon might add, was before Botox. Because in his newest play—his fourth, all winners—it is tight skin that reigns supreme. Thus, Skintight from Roundabout, at the Laura Pels.
Harmon is the bright young comic voice first revealed at the Roundabout’s Underground in 2012 with Bad Jews. That lacerating comedy soon moved upstairs to the Pels, where it was followed in 2015 by Significant Other, a comic fest that proved a surprising disappointment upon its transfer to the Booth. Last February came the provocative Admissions at Lincoln Center Theater, and now Harmon’s back at the Pels.
Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall), the legendary clothing and underwear designer (as in Calvin Klein), is celebrating—or rather attempting not to celebrate—his 70th. But not if daughter Jodi (Idina Menzel) can help it. A dissatisfied California lawyer whose husband has just dumped her for a 24-year-old “spinner” named Misty, Jodi storms into Elliot’s ultra-luxe Greenwich Village townhouse and insists that her father—who doesn’t and never has acted his age—at least faces it.
The age issue is accentuated by the presence of two very different 20-year-olds. Trey (Will Brittain) stands out among this group of Hungarian descendants: He is a country boy from the Ozarks, whose adroit use of tight skin (very much on display, to comic effect) has enabled him to become what he refers to as Elliot’s “partner.” Trey is Beauty compared to Benjamin (Eli Gelb), Jodi’s conflicted son on break from his Queer Studies semester abroad in Budapest. Benjamin is no competition to Trey, in any manner. Or is he? They engage in a battle of brains over buff, and matters become quite interesting.
Followers of the playwright will recognize Benjamin as soul-brother to similar characters in Harmon’s first three plays, most notably Jordan (the Gideon Glick character) in Significant Other. One can be forgiven for surmising that these neurotic, not-quite-mature Jewish wallflower lads are not dissimilar to the 35-year-old Harmon; certainly, they all wield linguistic scalpels in the manner of the playwright. Benjamin is not the primary role, here; but Gelb—gangly arms and legs comported like pretzel twists, with an index finger incessantly making curly rings in his hair—continually holds the stage even when competing against Trey’s “skin.”
The evening’s main battle is between father and daughter, the latter of whom appears to have been thoroughly accepting of—but deeply warped by—dad’s flagrantly promiscuous sex life. Jodi is the center of the family, at least in her eyes, and blithely (but unsuccessfully) pleads for attention from the three men. Menzel is always amusing, using all her wiles in a losing attempt to compete. Wetherall—who in 1979 was Philip Anglim’s standby and eventual replacement in The Elephant Man—is weathered and worn as the non-Calvin Klein, grasping for his youth and the tight skin of his young friend.
Brittain is blissfully ignorant and very funny as the interloper fighting for his place in this unconventional family. Playwright and director provide him with him a grab bag of physical humor, and Brittain comes up continually victorious. The cast is rounded out by Stephen Carrasco, as the butler and former fling of Isaac’s; and Cynthia Mace, as a loyal Hungarian housekeeper.
Director Daniel Aukin—of Bad Jews, Admissions and non-Harmon titles such as 4000 Miles—keenly accentuates the author’s rapid-fire comedy, both verbal and visual. While you might think there’s little humor to be derived from Botox jokes nowadays, author and director give us a barrage which becomes funnier and funnier. Aukin can even take something simple—like the sixteen-step staircase that dominates Lauren Helpern’s oh-wouldn’t-you-like-to-live-there set—and get continual laughter out of it. There are also some very funny couch gags, of the “watch where you sit” variety. But Skintight is loaded with laughter as it contemplates beauty, love and lust.
Skintight opened June 21, 2018 at the Laura Pels Theatre and runs through August 26. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org