To experience a thing as beauty means: to experience it necessarily wrongly. — Nietzsche
For Elliot Isaac (Harry Groener)—70-year-old chairman emeritus of a definitive American fashion brand, ensconsed in what looks like a John Pawson-designed residence with a thick slab of 20-year-old meat named Trey (Will Brittain)—lust is the drug, and the drug is life.
Elliot and Trey’s happy West Village home has been invaded by Elliot’s daughter Jodi and her son Benjamin, both of whom have dropped in unannounced to celebrate the paterfamilias’ birthday. Jodi—in dire need of a shoulder to kvetch on because her ex-husband just married a 24-year-old woman—is in no mood to deal with daddy’s latest trick, no matter how many times Trey insists that he and the iconic designer are “partners.” (The only thing that comes between Trey and his benefactor is an Elliot Isaac jockstrap.)
So begins Joshua Harmon’s new comedy SKINTIGHT, “a funny play about sad people,” in the words of its playwright—saddened, no doubt, by the transactional nature of life and its inherent betrayals. Turning disenchantment into scorched-earth comedy is Harmon’s signature, and the Geffen Playhouse production of SKINTIGHT features a pair of master class performances in the art of landing and sustaining a joke.
Elliot’s birthday—which he has no interest in celebrating—is an excuse for his daughter to weigh in on a lifetime of paternal abandonment. And if Jodi (Idina Menzel, running on all cylinders in a part written for her) excoriates everyone around her with slashing wit and mock pathos, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), in a series of slo-mo reaction takes, gets the big laughs. Watching mother and son conspire to rid the family house of its interloper, share a porn video, or compete for queer cultural-awareness points is pure voyeuristic pleasure. (Not to mention Trey—Will Brittain—in the aforementioned jockstrap, which provides a marvelous Act Two sight gag for Menzel.)
Near the end of the play, Jodi, in a last attempt at connection, asks her father (Harry Groener) to explain the importance of “hotness,” a marketing concept that has generated untold wealth for the family. Elliot launches into an extended verbal essay on the beauty of Trey’s skin and the smell of sex in the morning. Jodi feels that her father is confusing his appreciation of Trey’s pulchritude with love: “That’s lust. Lust is easy. Love is hard.”
But Jodi—and Nietzsche—have it wrong, at least in the case of Elliot. Jodi was raised by a man whose first desire and last remaining vice is the possession of things and their surfaces. For Elliot, “love” and “lust” are distinctions without a difference.
After all, one suspects that Elliot doesn’t love Trey more or less than any number of boys he’s gone through over the decades, including Jeff (Jeff Skowron), the once-young, now-middle-aged majordomo Elliot employs. It’s just that Elliot is now in his eighth decade and this might be his valedictory ride around the rodeo: Trey is the last trick up his perfectly cuffed sleeve.
SKINTIGHT was directed by Daniel Aukin and the scenic design is by Lauren Helpern.
Through October 12.
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles.
Joshua Harmon, Skintight, Geffen Playhouse, September–October 2019, from top: Idina Menzel; Eli Gelb and Menzel; Will Brittain and Harry Groener; Gelb, Menzel, and Brittain; Gelb and Brittain; Menzel and Groener; Groener, Menzel, Gelb, and Brittain; Gelb and Menzel. Photographs by Chris Whitaker.