Jodi (Idina Menzel), the fortysomething central character in Joshua Harmon’s attention-grabbing new drama, Skintight, is having a bad time. She has arrived unannounced at her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse to help celebrate his 70th birthday, even though she has been warned not to by her dad. But she’s determined to connect with those who love her in her time of trial: in Los Angeles she has just attended the wedding of her ex-husband to a perky young 25-year-old.
But her father, Elliott (Jack Wetherall), who is gay, has a surprise as well. He’s in a romantic relationship with a 20-year-old, an Oklahoma good ol’ boy named Trey (Will Brittain) with biceps like cantaloupes. Coincidentally, Elliott’s own grandson Benjamin is 20, and his arrival for the weekend is imminent; Jodi has pressured him to stop en route back from Los Angeles to Budapest, where he is studying queer theory. Like his grandfather, Benjamin is gay, but unlike the ramrod-straight Elliott and buff Trey, who ride a motorcycle together, Eli Gelb manages to convey, through rubbery slouches, gangly limbs and discontented shrugs, that he’s not as butch.
Attended on by a Hungarian-born maid, Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), who resembles Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love, and Jeff (Stephen Carrasco), a handsome, aging houseboy, the three generations mix like oil and water.
There are many layers to Harmon’s play. The title gives away one: Is it the outer, physical appearance, or the inner beauty that matters? Embodied by the glamorous Menzel, Jodi is insecure in her forties, rude, condescending and demanding toward her father, and she openly disdains his relationship with Trey. Outwardly she’s beautiful; inwardly, not so much.
For his part, Elliot is no prize. Toward his grandson he’s aloof, and he dismisses both Jodi and Ben’s complaints about his past lack of interest in their lives—but that distance is apparent. Although Elliot is nominally retired as head of his globally renowned fashion house, he keeps his hand in.
Elliot: I’m still the one who puts out the fires.
Jodi: And what fires are, like, blazing today?
Elliot: The men’s shirts.
Elliot: They’re too white.
Jodi: What color are they supposed to be?
Elliot: White. But the ones they’re proposing are too white.
It’s easy to imagine that Elliot has always been more wrapped up in the niggling details of his business than in his family. Wetherall makes him a patient if chilly scion. At one point, Jodi says she has never heard of Trey before.
Jodi: It’s the first I’m hearing of it.
Elliot: No, it’s not.
Jodi: Yeah, it kind of is, yeah. It is.
Elliot: No, I told you about Trey. You’re wrong.
Jodi: Well, I guess I didn’t clock it then.
The failure to listen to each other, the lack of genuine interest among these blood relations, shows up between mother and son as well. Jodi is overbearing with Benjamin: “Did you show him how you do Yiddish?” she asks. “He does know a little bit, it’s so adorable,” she tells Elliot. And Benjamin replies: “No, we talked about this, remember? I’m a person, not a trained monkey.” Poor Benjamin has his turn with Elliot, too, in a particularly nasty scene.
“What is the nature of attraction?” Harmon seems to be asking. How tightly are we bound by “skin” (or blood) to others? Does love need to be earned? If it’s romantic love, can there be any boundaries, such as age or sexual orientation? The absurdity of these disparate characters being a family is what drives Harmon’s often funny, yet often unsettling, play, and director Daniel Aukin keeps the discomfort at an unusually high pitch, leavened by bursts of comedy.
Elliot is, for instance, receiving Botox treatments—but so is Trey. Yet they aren’t made to seem shallow—rather they want to seize every opportunity to find happiness; appearing healthy and youthful is just another tool to do that, and even the maid joins in. Jodi, still angry at her ex’s betrayal with a younger woman, scoffs at them. “The lines in your face are your history,” she tells Orsolya. “I don’t want to erase my history.”
The fact that her comment makes her seem narrow-minded is one of a few surprises that Harmon springs along the way; there’s even a Sunset Boulevard angle—appropriately, since that film involved a romantic relationship with a considerable age difference.
Occasionally he overreaches, though. When Trey gives a toast, would he really begin, “El. Babes. Donkey dick,” and then explain, “That’s a inside joke”? There’s nothing “inside” about it; it’s a cheap and vulgar laugh at the expense of the most likable character.
Lauren Helpern has provided a gray, Brutalist stone interior to underscore Elliot’s personality, and the final scene, one of unease and uncertainty, is perfectly played. Here’s a new drama that explores unfamiliar territory with daring aplomb.
The Roundabout Theatre Company production of Skintight runs through Aug. 26 at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 W. 46th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. (Idina Menzel will not perform on July 22.) For tickets and information, call (212) 719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org.