In Search of Lost Time

Memory plays often suffer from those ponderous longueurs the backward glance is prone to: no matter how significant or traumatic the recalled event may be, it has led to the present's wistful, cozy, and inevitably repetitive nostalgias. And while the act of remembering does not have to be as impervious as Proust's cork-lined room, one can ill afford the luxuriousness of looking back if confronted with current dangers. Thus, to frame events as memories—secure and made precious in the mind, their dramatic moment must be long dead. Time regained may well be conflict lost. Skin Tight, written by New Zealand playwright Gary Henderson, attempts to avoid this problem. It is not until the play's end that we discover that the fighting, lovemaking, and confessions between two aging lovers, Elizabeth and Tom, are definitely memories. By saying this, don't think I'm giving anything away. The whole play is suffused with small eddies of conversation and ebb tides of monologue where the lovers lose themselves in reminiscences about their past.

The opening sequence is a corny stage fight that predictably turns to sexual teasing as the lovers collapse onto the bed. The play takes a long time to warm up even after the lovers get talking. Is it really believable, for example, that this is the first time an older couple discusses their "first time" with each other? While it's not apparent yet that the events occur in memory (whose blurring force compresses the bright details), the quick alternations between passion and violence don't seem altogether believable. In fact, most of the action sequences appear a bit "canned"—especially one in which Tom yanks Elizabeth around by a knife she's biting in her mouth.

James Jacobus, as Tom, often lapses into overwrought, actor-ly expressions (pursing his lips, screwing his brow) when he is trying to show his character being pensive. He is much better at expansive and humorous gestures, such as when he rants. Stephanie Barton-Farcas demonstrates a more even-keeled control throughout, though her tone never really matches the desperate pitch of her character.

The play eventually strikes a note of genuine pathos, however, when it slows down to let the characters confront each other with their stories. Elizabeth, it turns out, has always resented Tom for going off to fight in the war. She confesses, though, that her affair with a young sheep sheerer during this time only led her to realize that her love for Tom was inescapable. Likewise, the couple's angry litany of petty domestic resentments hits hilariously true to home.

The end of the play attempts to portray a poignant scene of the lovers saying their last goodbyes, nude in a bath. Does the full-frontal nudity distract one from the quiet mood of sentimental sorrow that's intended? Not much. What it lacks in shock value it gains in intimacy, especially since their bodies quickly turn away or submerge in the tub downstage under dim-lit blue gels moments after they disrobe. But even this scene did not help the play escape a certain generic blandness.

Director Pamela Butler's stage design—a bed with white sheets upstage right, a tub (or trough) downstage left—is merely functional and lacks the expressionistic evocations that often give memory plays their eerie translucence wherein things reflected become more real.

Interestingly, love, unlike other powerful emotions that dissipate with time, sometimes appears more alive, more real insofar as it has been lost to a vanished past. Within memory, the events of one's love life usually become starker, stranger, and more fraught with their future significance.

This play, however, produces the opposite effect: a limp, nostalgic monotony lacking the erotic triste of remembering a long-lost love, which the play intended to evoke. While the experience of watching it was more or less entertaining while it was happening, it was also fairly forgettable afterward.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post