Although Idina Menzel looks fabulous in “Skintight,” the new play by Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews,” “Significant Other”), her character, Jodi Isaac, is a total wreck when she flies into New York for her father’s 70th birthday. Jodi’s middle-aged husband has left her for a 24-year-old, and all her friends have deserted her for the happy couple. Furthermore, she’s approaching her sell-by date of 50. (She’s only in her mid-40s, but who’s counting? She is, that’s who!)
Not that Jodi gets much sympathy from her dear old dad, Elliot Isaac (Jack Wetherall, the soul of sophistication), who is himself in a fulfilling relationship with 20-year-old Trey (Will Brittain, beauty on the hoof). That makes Elliott’s paramour exactly the same age as his grandson, Benjamin Cullen (Eli Gelb, an endearing klutz). But, again, who’s counting? Jodi is.
Harmon has written Jodi a delicious opening aria of unabashed self-pity, which Menzel delivers like the diva she is. Raging about her husband’s new love interest, she erupts in outraged scorn. Wondering out loud what a 50-year-old man and a 24-year-old gym bunny can even talk about, she demands: “I want to see the transcripts!” There’s truth in her outburst, which makes it as painful as it is funny.
The playwright takes a sardonic view of age and all its phony virtues. When Jodi congratulations her father on achieving a milestone birthday, his wry retort — “It’s not an achievement, to not die” — sends a frisson of painful laughter throughout the house. Age-appropriate relationships obviously don’t count much with Elliott, who is old enough to take pleasure where he finds it. But they certainly matter a lot to Jodi, who is hilariously vile to Trey.
“Do me a favor?” she asks him, pointedly explaining that she and Benjamin will be having “a family weekend” with Elliott. “So, it’d be good if you stayed at your place this weekend, ok?”
Trey, who calls Elliott “Babes” and takes him for motorcycle lessons, is more or less a ditz. (“I want you to be my good boy tonight, ok?” Elliott asks him, a bit wistfully.) But Trey gives as good as he gets, and really sticks it to Jodi by pointing out that, as Elliott’s partner, he lives with him here in his West Village townhouse (classy digs, in Lauren Helpern’s cool design). But Jodi doesn’t surrender so fast. “Then go stay with friends,” she orders him.
Funny as it is, this kind of one-upmanship banter gets tiresome after a while. Besides, it’s perfectly obvious that Jodi’s pathetic attempts to wring some paternal affection out of her emotionally withholding dad doesn’t stand a chance against Trey’s youth and beauty. (“I’d like to sleep on sheets made from your skin,” Elliott says to Trey, and probably means it.) Because this is what it’s all about, anyway — the formidable power of youth and beauty over age, intellect, compatibility, shared history, and even familial feelings.
Harmon hits that point home in a snappy exchange between Jodi and Benjamin that pretty much demolishes the notion that there are still some things that matter more than youth and beauty. “What matters is who somebody is on the inside,” Jodi tells her son. “That’s what matters. Not looks.” To which Benjamin replies: “I think that message got lost like somewhere around the war over Helen of Troy.” Typical of Harmon’s takedown humor, Jodi is “dazzled” that Benjamin knows who Helen of Troy was.
Funny enough, birdbrain Trey absolutely gets the idealistic notion that beauty is only skin deep. “I just care about the person inside,” he says of his relationship with Elliott, whom he pronounces “a good person.” It’s Benjamin, the 20-year-old cynic, who says, “I’m sorry, but no one cares about the person inside.”
For a play with serious matters on its mind, “Skintight” is packed with jokes — droll ones, smart ones, silly ones, and some that are quite moving. The men may have all the laugh lines, but Menzel is marvelous at giving Jodi’s annoying smothering-mother the plaintive air of someone who feels completely at a loss in a world she never dreamed of, back in the day when she, too, was young and beautiful — and who now feels compelled to keep playing her nurturing role, even though she knows she’s despised for it.
The play has no plot, in a conventional sense, which makes it feel loose and baggy. But it does have movement, as the characters begin to relate to one another, opening themselves up to change — and to feelings they’ve almost forgotten they had. But let’s not take all the fun out of this smart play. At the end of the day, given the choice of spending his birthday with a beefy birdbrain who eats Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes while sprawled on the sofa in his underwear, or with his own needy flesh and blood, age and decrepitude will pick youth and beauty any day.