At one point in Skintight, Elliot Isaac, praising his much younger lover Trey’s skin, dreams of making it into thousands of sheets.
“Creepy,” says Trey.
The wide interpretive space of Joshua Harmon’s witty play allows both viewpoints to be true.
The front of the program, designed to suggest a planned plastic surgery, with dotted lines over its star Idina Menzel’s face, reads: “Beauty isn’t everything. So why is it the only thing?” The play attacks this question both comically and seriously, but the cover is also misleading. The play is also about what defines a particular kind of gay relationship. That’s harder to sketch on the front of a Playbill.
Jack Wetherall’s Elliot is in love or sexual thrall—or an intangible mix of both—with Trey (Will Brittain), some 50 years his junior, and Trey is both callow and (maybe) deeper than his blond, humpy twinkiness suggests to Elliot’s furious daughter, Jodi (Menzel), and her lackadaisical son, Benji (Eli Gelb).
Trey says he loves Elliot, but the definition and nature of that love and their closeness is what is in question, as well as a proprietary daughter facing the challenge of sharing her father.
Harmon has investigated gay intimacy before (Significant Other), and most recently cultural hypocrisies and duplicities within family life (Admissions), and Skintight marries elements of both.
Menzel’s high-energy, bustling ball of discontent and motherly over-attachment is this show’s zingiest comic draw. The play opens with her complaining about the breakdown of her marriage. Think of a car engine running, growling, misfiring, not stopping.
Her husband has left her for a much younger woman who, she notes, was a baby when she was at college. She claims not to have a problem with her father’s later-in-life blooming gay life, but her most cherished memories, and memories she uses as weapons against Trey, are from the sepia-frozen past of when her mother was alive and conventional hetero-family intact.
The open field Harmon affords to his characters and their motivations paradoxically becomes one of the play’s frustrations. It asks that we hedge our bets on pretty much everything, like whether Elliot and Trey’s particular older-younger relationship is a healthy thing and whether a transactional relationship involving a rich, older man and a younger, grasping, fairly rude one is such a great idea.
You don’t exactly root for Trey and Elliot to be together; Harmon at least partially writing unexpectedly against the central couple—or the hearts, flowers, and longing of what we expect of a central couple—is both perverse and refreshing. Trey seems selfish and pretty unpleasant, Elliot imperious and removed. They’re a good, narcissistic match for each other. You can imagine meeting them at a party and later being relieved to be out of their self-regarding presence.
We can judge the relationship, of course—Jodi sure does, and Elliot insists he knows exactly what he is doing, whatever she thinks—but the play doesn’t. Similarly, it leaves open the foggy intentions of a frustrated child watching her father, as she sees it, humiliate himself and be humiliated. Or is Jodi merely pissed off at the hot interloper getting in the way of her access to her father’s millions and millions?
Elliot, who seems an awful lot like Calvin Klein (and Wetherall sure as heck looks like him), has made his money in clothing, and specifically underwear with his name written on the waistband. Klein also has famously had much younger boyfriends, most notably Nick Gruber, and shacked up with him in a swish New York home.
Like Gruber (reportedly), Trey has been a porn star and had sex with women as well as men. Trey, who drawls and revels in being almost belligerently unsophisticated, knows what those drawn to him are attracted to, and so the groin is well-upholstered and shoved front and up at all times.
Just wait for the scene when Trey comes downstairs in the middle of the night in one of his bulgiest jockstraps to sit and eat cereal between mother and son on the couch. (And watch a few minutes later, as Menzel approaches the couch as if it had a lethal strain of botulism streaked on it.)
Then there is Benji—a geeky, awkward young man studying Queer Theory abroad, and a very different gay man from Trey—who, in one of the best scenes of the play, connects with Trey, and then very nearly really connects with him, leading a warning to back off. From his grandpa.
Cynthia Mace as the maid Orsolya and Stephen Carrasco as Jeff, a manservant who has an intimate past with Elliot, complete the company. Mace comically struggles up and down the stairs of Lauren Helpern’s plush set with heavy suitcases. Jeff glides in and out, a mostly voiceless handsome Mrs. Danvers, who Trey can’t stand—or feels threatened by—because of his connection to Elliot.
Suddenly, the sexiness of Trey and his youth become the central concern of this play, which is fine if a little dramatically deflating. Trey has a nice body, but his sexual charisma isn’t that magnetic. Despite his hunky body, you don’t really covet whatever it is Jodi and Benji start surmising about what he has.
For this part of the play, Jodi and Benji recognize it (really—after being so circumspect about everything else?). For them, his supposed beauty is Trey’s power, and it is the root of many other people’s success and power too. Skintight doesn’t ask what price, beauty, but rather what can it buy you. Elliot is in the business of selling sex, and here he is living his own lifestyle.
One of the play’s conclusions, and one that it means to sit there and not get beyond, is that if you are beautiful, you’ll be all right; that beauty is the thing that can guarantee access and riches.
For Elliot, Trey’s beauty is life-giving, but Elliot’s key speech to Jodi, praising that beauty and waking up next to it every morning, sounds more vampiric and “creepy” than perhaps how it is intended. Jodi notes that whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like love.
There is amity of a kind in conclusion. But you’re left scratching your chin with this inconsistently likable and grating group. Trey is perhaps not as bad as Jodi thinks, but maybe he is (he certainly has a capacity for cruelty and meanness); as for Elliot, Wetherall seems to be playing intense Strindberg while everyone else has beached their characters on an accessible fault line between comedy and drama.
We can understand Jodi’s frustrations, but Jodi/Menzel is beautiful too, at least equally so to Trey/Brittain, so it’s hard that she would feel at such an aesthetic disadvantage next to him. Which leaves Benji, also very handsome (especially if you like big, curly hair), who perhaps needs to stop learning Queer Theory and start living a queer life.
Just as the play asks us not to judge its characters, it also asks us to accept how people choose to live with the compromises and shortcomings in their intimate relationships that are not just obvious to others but also to them.
Skintight is at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York City. Booking through Aug. 26.