Jodi Isaac (Idina Menzel) is feeling insecure. On paper, there’s no reason she should be—she is a successful lawyer at a top firm in Los Angeles, she has more or less successfully raised two young adult sons, and her father is a fashion retail mogul. But her husband recently left her for another woman—an affair she discovered when she caught them together, in her bed—and to make matters worse, the woman is 25-years-old and her ex is now engaged to her. So now, having fled to the safety of her father’s four-story home in Manhattan for a brief reprieve, she chooses her outfits carefully, and cannot help but scrutinize her reflection in a leftover carafe from breakfast. Beauty is an important commodity, and Skintight, a play by Joshua Harmon currently in its west coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is a biting and astute look at age, appearance, and how they affect our relationship with the world.
When Jodi encounters Trey (Will Brittain), a 20-year-old Oklahoman with a southern drawl and abs for days, she is initially not surprised. Her father, Elliot (Harry Groener) has long had a revolving door of male flings. But she is unprepared for the revelation that this one is more serious—they hold hands in the street and refer to one another as “partners.” Jodi is determined to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday, and her 20-year-old son Benji (Eli Gelb), on a respite from studying abroad in Budapest, flies in to join the family for the weekend. Rounding out the cast are Jeff (Jeff Skowron) and Orsolya (Kimberly Jürgen), Elliot’s live-in house staff.
The action unfolds in the simple, stark, almost clinical living room of Elliot’s home, a gray-toned space that is neither warm nor inviting. It’s fitting, because that is not the type of man Elliot is—he gets Botox injections on his birthday and did not bother to visit his grandson while vacationing in Europe just a couple countries away. Everyone in the family is putting on an act of sorts, and it is fitting that they built their empire selling clothing—facades to help people present a specific image to the world, regardless of how honest that image might be. Literally none of the characters would be where they are today without relying on the vanity of society at large, so it makes sense that they have become a bit appearance-obsessed themselves.
On the surface, this story has all the makings to be just another family dramedy, but Harmon’s script is layered and often quite subtle, despite being full of funny one-liners. None of these characters are ever simply right or wrong—they all live in shades of gray. Benji is a bit of a spoiled brat, lugging his dirty laundry across an ocean so Orsolya can do it for him, but he also clearly loves his mother, trying to cheer her up in a particularly tough moment. Jodi can be mean, particularly in her refusal to take Trey seriously, but the feeling that she is truly trying her best with a tough situation never wavers. And you never quite know what to make of Trey—he is callous and cruel towards Jeff, likely because Jeff and Elliot were once more than just employee and employer, but also seems to care a great deal about Elliot, trying to find ways to create special moments for him.
You might think early on that you have Elliot and Trey’s relationship figured out—Jodi sure thinks she does—but things are more complicated than they seem. The most interesting part of this play is the unspoken dynamics. Jodi and Trey are jealous of each other, competing all weekend for Elliot’s affection. Benji is fascinated by Trey, his polar opposite despite being the same age. And even Jeff, who speaks only a handful of lines the entire time, has clearly remained in Elliot’s orbit for rather heartbreaking reasons.
Directed by Daniel Aukin, the pacing is spot on, and this ensemble is a ton of fun to watch, playing beautifully off each other. Menzel is effervescent, speaking a mile a minute, the fact that her character is one misstep away from a mental breakdown never far from the surface. Groener shines in a revealing scene towards the end that sheds some light onto Elliot’s psyche, and Gelb is hilarious as his petulant grandson, the kind of millennial that gives the generation a bad name. Brittain is all confident swagger as the often barely-clothed Trey, but chooses the right moments to show vulnerability. And Skowron makes a lot out of a few tiny moments, adding a whole extra layer to the dynamics in the Isaac family home. Overall, Skintight is an entertaining look at complicated people, with ideas that go beyond skin deep.
Skintight runs at the Geffen Playhouse through October 12th. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.