9/22/2019        SKINTIGHT                                             Actor's Express



The Isaac family is in turmoil.

Eliot Isaac is about to turn 70, and he HATES surprises.  His daughter Jodi, a successful Los Angeles attorney, bursts unannounced ("Surprise!") into his expensive Manhattan apartment, in the midst of an emotional break-down caused by her ex-husband inviting ALL HER friends to his engagement party (the new bride is a spin instructer younger than Jodi's own children).  All she wants is a little parental TLC.  She discovers that her father has a new partner, Trey, a former gay-porn star with the (at first glance) brain power and character depth of, well, a former porn star.  Who, incidentally is the same age as her son, Benjamin, a spoiled and moody kid studying abroad in Budapest, majoring in "Queer Studies" and minoring in "Yiddish Studies."  

Now, Jodi can tolerate, even appreciate, her father's endless parade of "boy toys," but this one has the unmitigated gall to call himself a "partner" and hold hands in public.  

Did I mention that the Isaacs, descending from poor Hungarian-Jewish refugees, are the quintessential Rags-to-Riches story?  They are VERY well-off, and Eliot's home shows it, complete with comically-old Hungarian maid (Orsolya) and an ex-lover assistant (Jeff).  They are the very picture of privilege, as we see as they blithely toss over-stuffed luggage to the Orsolya

to tote up to the "fourth Floor Bedroom" when it is obvious to us that every stair in the staircase is an extreme effort for her to navigate.

And it is all in the service of a cracker-jack plot that examines the limits of family duty and affection, the effect of growing up in privilege, the vanity of counter-measures to the aging process, and whether fifty-year-old p***sy is as palatable to a bored husband as twenty-year old p***sy.  There are even passing references of Antisemitism in Hungary ("The Isaac store is the only building in Budapest with a Jewish name on it other than the Holocaust Memorial.")

Joshua Harmon's play, Skintight, is a rapturous exercise in character and dialogue, set-up and pay-off, humor and whimsy, anger and resentment, affection and jealousy, and, ultimately, reconciliation that is more truce than true solution.  It is ostensibly about the skin-deep but undeniable pull of youth and beauty, but eventually becomes a treatise on love and marriage. the trump card that is family, and the acknowledgement that lust and tight skin can even beat a trump card.

Just what is wrong with giving in to the appeal of "Hot?"  There is a short answer, a complicated answer, and the answer provided in Skintight, which, truth to tell is not an answer at all.  Chris Kayser as Eliot, has a beautifully-delivered monologue about why he needs youth and "Hot," that is almost convincing until Jodi (a radiantly excellent Wendy Melkonian) undercuts him with a terse "What you're describing is lust, not love."  She's not wrong, but she is definitely  wrong in trying to "kneecap" what could be her father's last chance at happiness.  It is painfully apparent that she is totally unwilling to provide her father with the emotional support she so desperately wants from him.

One of the more most enjoyable aspects of this script is the slow unpeeling of the layers of Trey's (the totally ripped Truman Griffin) character.  Yes, he is indeed as shallow and "vacant" as you would expect, but he is also endearingly sweet (unless threatened) and almost naive, in spite of his seedy background.  He is quick to pick up information and to "read" everyone around him. He is direct, painfully honest, and seemingly unable to disguise his feelings -- or accommodate any emotional ambiguity at all.  He wants what he wants, he loves who loves, and anyone's opinion of him is as relevant as a bicycle in an aquarium.  

I also really appreciated Eliot's relationships with his "staff."  Though not explicitly stated, it seems as if the maid Orsolya (the always superb Marianne Fraulo) used to be a family friend or servant (she's probably older than Eliot and could have known him as a child).  The assistant Jeff (Truman Griffin) remained a friend even after the "bloom" faded from their affair.  His stoic omnipresence is the only thing that can bring out Trey's petulance and "dickishness" ("Why don't you get a job at Pizza Hut!").  Considering that Jeff represents a long-lasting relationship with Eliot, it is hardly a surprise that Trey resents him.  

There are so many little touches that drive home the motif of beauty vs depth of feeling -- a running gag about Botox, a photo book given as a present, Trey blithely unaware of how his near-naked body shakes Benjamin (Jake Berne) to the bottom of his bottom, the "dressing up" for a simple family dinner at home, Benjamin refusing to learn Hungarian OR Yiddish, depite ostensibly being in Budapest to discover his family's history and roots.  

This marvelous play is being given a beautiful production at Actor's Express.  Freddy Ashley directs it at a breathtakingly fast clip and even tolerates "upstaging" humor (mostly involving Orsolya's painfully slow assent of the staircase) because the conversation she's "upstaging" is just so not-as-interesting.  Seamus Boune's set is a beautiful construct, an elegant family room that showcases Eliot's wealth and good taste (though, truth to tell, the beautifully inlaid hardwood (looking) floor would give me a headache if I had to see it every day).  D. Connor McVey's lighting is functional and elegant, particularly the night scene lit only by the glow of an unseen television screen on the actors' faces. 

But, above all, this is a terrific ensemble of actors who create very distinct characters, who mine the script for every ounce of humor and humanity (and the script thankfully provides plenty of both).  Wendy Melkonian and Chris Kayser are near-perfect in their interctions, creating compellingly dysfunctional characters with little more than a rambling digression or a subtle shift in posture.

I could wax philosophically about the skin-deep nature of physical attraction, (Jeff states succintly -- as he does everything -- "Anything that's very beautiful only lasts a very short time").  But when the skin is tight ("I want to make sheets out of your skin"), when the sex is satisfying, when the companionship fills the days with wonder and delight, it may be time to redefine "skin deep."  Or at least stop being so judgmental about its appeal.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AESkintight)

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