With ‘Skintight,’ Idina Menzel Takes On a Straight Play. Sort Of.

Posted June 22, 2018 12:06 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Idina Menzel is known for her vocal pyrotechnics, but intensity like hers doesn’t really begin in the throat. It’s much deeper than that, and thus much richer, which is why she remains the definitive interpreter of musical roles like Maureen in “Rent,” the green witch Elphaba in “Wicked” and Elsa — or at least her voice — in the animated movie “Frozen.”

But there’s no point ignoring that she operates at a certain temperature, and even in “Frozen” that temperature is hot. So you get an immediate shiver suggesting strange weather when she shows up with all her neurotic engines blazing in the supercool confines of Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight,” a nonmusical comedy that opened Thursday at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Laura Pels Theater.

This is before she even gets to speak. As Jodi Isaac, a Los Angeles lawyer “hanging on by a thread,” she instantly looks out of place, vibrating with anxiety in the living room of her father’s Horatio Street town house. That living room, perfectly rendered by the set designer Lauren Helpern, is a gray monument to punitive good taste.

That’s because the father, Elliot Isaac, is a world-renowned purveyor of minimalist design, which he sells on the backs of models whose bodies represent a similar perfectionist aesthetic. You don’t have to have spent your childhood as the “Eloise of Studio 54,” as Jodi did, to recognize the similarities to Calvin Klein.

So this is going to be a Jewish family comedy about youth and beauty, which Elliot (Jack Wetherall) takes very seriously indeed. Apparently Jodi’s ex-husband, back in LA, does too, because he is about to marry an aerobicized young woman of 24. Jodi has come to New York not only to forcibly celebrate her father’s 70th birthday, which he’d prefer to ignore, but also to seek paternal solace for this blow to her self-image as a vibrant young woman still claiming to be in her “very early 40s.”

That solace is not forthcoming, and not only because Elliot is a very cold fish. Before Jodi can finish bewailing her ex-husband’s child bride, with all the mortifying math that entails, Elliot trumps her with Trey, the 20-year-old Okie hunk he has taken to calling his partner.

All of these and one other key element — Jodi’s 20-year-old son, Benjamin, a queer studies major — are presented as crisply as a white dress shirt in a box. It only remains to see what everyone’s goals will be and how they will cross, clash and (because this is a comedy) eventually coalesce. You anticipate a sleekly enjoyable romp: well made, sexy, with a bit of substance yet light enough for a summer evening.

A low bar, perhaps, but “Skintight” clears it. Though Jodi is needy and Elliot vain — and Benjamin sulky and Trey dim — Harmon complicates their baseline traits sufficiently to keep them interesting if not especially credible. Trey, for instance, is rude to one of the servants. Benjamin, who at first seems morally superior, turns out to be blind to his own sense of entitlement. A trustafarian grandson of a near-billionaire, he has the gall to criticize Trey for sponging.

But something’s off, and it’s not the cast. In her first prominent nonsinging stage role, Menzel nails Jodi just about perfectly, landing every joke as if on a musical button. Her heat makes sense of the character’s contradictions and is beautifully foiled by Wetherall’s lizard sang-froid. As Benjamin, Eli Gelb seems to have walked onto the Laura Pels stage directly from a semiotics course at Brown; and Will Brittain brings dignity to the prototypical dumb jock, even if he is often made to do so while wearing one.

So any random 15-minute stretch spent watching “Skintight” is likely to prove rewarding; you’ll laugh, you’ll ogle, you’ll tut. And the staging, by director Daniel Aukin, will keep you from noticing that more and more of those stretches are stretching by without much build.

If you’ve seen Harmon’s earlier plays, that problem may remind you of “Significant Other,” in which there’s less of a plot than a recurrent situation: A gay guy’s female friends keep getting married. Or you may, more happily, recall “Bad Jews,” with its omnivorous comic appetite.

What you won’t think of is “Admissions,” recently produced by Lincoln Center Theater, in which the characters have clear agendas at clear odds with one another’s.

The characters in “Skintight” don’t have agendas; they have annoyances. (Jodi doesn’t mind Elliot’s relationship with Trey but wishes he wouldn’t call it love.) In any case, whatever these family members need they either have or take no meaningful steps to achieve. That’s real privilege — but not much of a play.

You can see how it might have been. Sometimes a flash of unruly emotion or pungent language will briefly illuminate thematic recesses that are otherwise left in the dark. When Elliot, fondling Trey’s forearms, says, “I’d like to have sheets made from your skin,” you get a sense of what kind of creepy imagination (and commercial savvy) makes someone an Elliot Isaac.

And when Benjamin, who has been spending a year abroad in Hungary, has to remind everyone why Elliot’s parents left that country, you finally feel a counterweight to the play’s constant whinging about youth and beauty.

But “Skintight” stops well short of exploring, let alone indicting, its characters’ vapidity and historical amnesia. Rather it seems to accept anomie as a shruggable fact of life. When Jodi asks the Hungarian housekeeper to translate the writing on the back of a photograph of Elliot’s grandparents, a message of stunning banality is revealed: “It has been raining here.”

That’s funny but also apt. “Skintight” is an “it has been raining here” kind of play. And perhaps it’s just the wrong season for anything more ambitious. In any case, you know it’s an overcooled room if even Idina Menzel can’t heat it up.

Production Notes:


Through Aug. 26 at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Credits: By Joshua Harmon; directed by Daniel Aukin; sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Pat Collins; music and sound by Eric Shimelonis; hair and wigs by Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, Jill Cordle; production management, Aurora Productions; general manager, Nicholas J. Caccavo; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director/CEO, Julia C. Levy, executive director. Sydney Beers, general manager, Steve Dow, chief administrative officer.

Cast: Will Brittain (Trey), Stephen Carrasco (Jeff), Eli Gelb (Benjamin Cullen), Cynthia Mace (Orsolya), Idina Menzel (Jodi Isaac) and Jack Wetherall (Elliot Isaac).