Joshua Harmon’s play “Skintight,” presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, can keep you laughing but also manages to be ultimately serious in exploring the meaning of love. What makes it work is the creation of characters whose quirks are meat for the excellent cast, and also for the direction by Daniel Aukin, who milks steady, abundant humor out of the situations the playwright has concocted.
Take the character of Jodi Isaac, played by the comedy’s principal attraction, Idina Menzel. A lawyer in California, Jodi has come to New York to celebrate the 70th birthday of her father, the wealthy and famous clothing designer Elliot Isaac, and also in hope of getting some fatherly sympathy. Jodi enters in a state of non-stop rage over her husband’s dumping her for a 24-year-old. She is fuming over the situation and the author and Menzel have made the anger hilarious with the ourageous lines she delivers. Jodi is clearly an emotional wreck with a totally shattered life and a grating personality that would make her impossible to live with.
That’s only the beginning. Her father, played by Jack Wetherall with the calmness of someone who knows what he wants, is living with a young hunk, Trey (Will Brittain). It is a serious relationship that galls Jodi, partly because of homophobia, but also because she sees Trey as an interloper competing for her father’s affection, which she desperately wants to help get her through the rough patch in her life, affection that she feels she has never properly had. She refuses to regard Trey as becoming part of the family.
Trey, strutting about amusingly in an excellent performance by Brittain, flaunts his body, as when he turns up wearing nothing but a jockstrap, much to Jodi’s disdain. She is sure he is after her father’s money, but Trey, while on the one hand giving an impression that this could be true, counters that with expression of loving feelings toward Elliot, who responds in kind and in an ultimate scene lectures Jodi on the meaning of love and sex and asserts how happy he is in his homosexual relationship with Trey, who, Elliot, says has brought new meaning to his life at the age of 70.
Add to the mix the arrival of Jodi’s blatantly and disconnected gay son, Benjamin (a very funny Eli Gelb), who has been studying abroad in Hungary, a country important in the history of the Isaac family, which had roots there. Much humor emerges over whether Benjamin knows any Hungarian, or Yiddish, and Elliot’s home includes the services of a kind Hungarian housekeeper Orsolya (Cynthia Mace).
Given Benjamin’s sexual orientation there are sparks between him and Trey, which of course, makes Elliot wary. As usual in the play, every situation is laced with comedy. When an impending marriage between the young stud Trey and Elliot looms, Trey delivers one of the play’s funniest lines when he reminds the cringing Jodi that she soon will become his stepdaughter.
The set-up also includes Stephen Carrasco as Jeff, the super-cool butler, who serves drinks and food with self-assured aplomb as he is ordered about, but always gives the impression that he is astutely observing the intense goings-on.
Aukin’s direction is admirable. He knows when to accent pauses to provide maximum comic effect, and excels by making the most out of bits of acting business. Mace is utterly hilarious when she drags Benjamin’s luggage up the stairs, each step milked for a laugh as a sight to behold. Likewise, Trey’s movements are often funny, especially when they can annoy Jodi.
The set, designed by Lauren Helpern, is minimalist modern, the perfect environment for the West Village home of Elliot. The staircase leading up to the one floor that we see out of others above, is important to the various staging gambits.
By the end, the playwright succeeds in introducing serious discussion via Elliot’s expression of his deep feelings toward exploring the idea of love and what it means, and the importance of erotic feelings to life itself. “Skintight” is more successful than Harmon's earlier and less tightly constructed “Bad Jews.”
This is not a play in which everything works out for everyone. Jodi is still left sitting coldly without resolution for her state of anxiety and disapproval. At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed June 28, 2018.