I was certain I was looking into the office of an Upper East Side plastic surgeon who caters to the Botoxed whims and existential panics of trophy spouses desperate to maintain their trophyhood. Industrial gray carpeting: check. Amorphous monochrome couch and swivel chairs around a clutter-free glass-top table: check. Glossy white cabinetry with hidden spring doors: check. Zigzag stairway leading … where? Check.
It’s not an office, though, but rather the pristine townhouse occupied by Elliot Isaac, designer of sleek prêt-à-porter for the elite and form-fitting unmentionables for the discount-mall mobs beckoned like moths by his ubiquitous faux-pornographic advertisements. If Elliot sounds suspiciously like Calvin Klein, that’s no accident. Joshua Harmon’s new play, Skintight, hews so close to the CK, ahem, model, that Jack Wetherall bares an uncanny resemblance to the soigné, surgically chiseled, sorta pan-sexual fashion icon. I even imagine that Isaac’s Horatio Street mausoleum (Lauren Helpern did the savvy set) has many like neighbors in the once funky, now gutted, rehabbed, designer architected West Village.
At open, Isaac is surprised to find his grown, divorced daughter Jodi (Idina Menzel) arrived in time to celebrate his 70th birthday, an event he has made clear he hopes to pass unmarked. But Jodi, a successful corporate lawyer, has flown in from the coast chiefly to avoid the party for her ex’s engagement to a hottie in her 20s whose enticements she describes in some detail to her unflappable, if somewhat put-out Dad. “There has got to be more to life than sex with a hot young thing,” Jodi insists, none too persuasively, “which, I am willing to admit, Misty is. I'm a bigger person, I am willing to admit – but as good as that is, it can't top everything else. Can it? I mean, it can't. Can it?”
Two hours and two acts later, Isaac gives her his answer in a long rebuke that begins, “Hot is everything. Look around you. This house – this life – has been paid for by hot. Hot is everything. It's everything.”
That’s a bit hilarious, since everything around them is anything but hot. This place could freeze an Eskimo. But we get what he means, because by then we’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the company of Isaac’s lover, Trey (Will Brittain). He is 20, sculpted entirely by nature (though he’ll indulge in a Botox shot just for insurance) and cocky. Oh boy is he cocky. I mean cocky. He doesn’t exactly say to Jodi, "Stay out of my way, sister, your old man is my partner. I live here. It’s my house. Get used to it."Plus, he tends to survey his domain in a cheek-enhancing jockstrap. She gets the message soon enough.
So does her gay son Ben (Eli Gelb), who has been studying Queer Theory in Budapest but has flown in to take part in what we’ll call, for want of a better phrase, the festivities.
Harmon, whose previous works include Bad Jews, Significant Other and the recent Admissions, is a serious playwright with a gift for snappy repartee and loaded monologues in which characters inevitably get to say all the smart things you wish you’d said when similarly confronted in social proximity to an idiot. Issues of identity and love weigh heavily on the sentences his characters utter, sometimes in brief retorts and frequently in long outbursts. You could develop whiplash reacting to the risqué quips on the one hand, and the sudden sad speeches of self-revelation on the other.
The best of them comes from Ben, who is as appalled as his mother by his distant grandfather but uneasily attracted to Trey as well. Isaac has described the grand opening of his Budapest store as a highpoint in his business life because “people were lining the streets, far as the eye could see” for the privilege of owning a pair of Elliot Isaac briefs.
A bit later, Ben tells Jodi, “I'm living in the place our family lived for centuries, and I mean, if you want to see a Jewish name in Hungary, you have to go to a Holocaust memorial. That's where those names are now. Except for the one exception: Elliot Isaac, whose name is everywhere. On billboards. On bus stops. And in huge letters, at his flagship store, in the same city his grandparents had to flee because they had a feeling something bad was coming.” It continues from there and in fact gets better, especially as delivered by the exceptionally likable Gelb.
Harmon’s humor may be scalpel sharp, but as a dramatic surgeon, he remains a resident, still learning how to sew all these messy threads into a believable representation of actual human behavior. A few flashes have shown what he is capable of – a grandmother’s intimate conversation with her lost grandson, in Significant Other, for example. But mostly Skintight, astutely staged by Daniel Aukin, lands as a series of set pieces delivered by different characters but in the single voice of a playwright still working through his demons. They aren’t nearly as conflicted as he would like us to think.