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Monday, September 16, 2019

F3Stage Review: Idina Menzel offers laughs & emotional truth in Skintight

Film Flam Flummox

When one thinks of Idina Menzel, the first thing that most likely, and quite understandably, comes to mind is her spectacular singing voice--to the unfortunate oversight of her no less impressive acting chops. This was never more apparent in her last major stage appearance in If/Then, a production that blessed her with a dual role that was even more dramatically demanding than it was vocally so; while earning her a much deserved third Tony Award nomination, still more attention was paid to the powerhouse pyrotechnics of her pipes than the tear-wringing tour de force of the totality of her turn. Menzel's pure gifts as an actress should never come close to being questioned with her richly wrought work in a change-of-pace straight play role in Joshua Harmon's funny and insightful Skintight, currently playing its west coast premiere engagement at the Geffen Playhouse's Gil Cates Theater in Westwood.

The production's key art being a close-up shot of Menzel's face being done up by the hands of an unseen glam squad is somewhat misleading for a couple of reasons, most notably for this being very much an ensemble piece, with Menzel's Jodi Isaac being one of four equally weighted central characters. Also, however, this is could not be less of a glamorous vanity project for Menzel, whose Jodi, a 40-something divorcée whose ex is about to marry a woman some 20 years their junior, is a raw, riveting mess of neuroses and insecurities. Her sudden presence at the posh and creepily sterile townhouse (scenic designer Lauren Helpern's two-level set is spot-on in its self-consciously clinical chic) of her wealthy fashion designer father Elliot (Harry Groener) for his 70th birthday is met with less than a warm welcome, not so much due to her frazzled state than the inevitable disruption she causes in his seemingly idyllic existence with his much younger live-in love Trey (Will Brittain). Strapping, studly southerner Trey is all of 20 years old, the same age as Jodi's rather effeminate eldest son Benjamin (Eli Gelb), who soon joins the would-be festive gathering from his queer theory studies abroad in Hungary.

That's about all there is as far as plot, but Harmon is less interested in straightforward narrative than exploring issues of aging, maturity, beauty, sexuality, family, and identity via the relationship dynamics within this contrasting quartet of characters. That description sounds heavy, but the proceedings are far from it, with Harmon spiking his genuine and sincere insight with biting, often hilarious, wit. Driving the piece more than the general and relevant themes are his words, which fly fast and furious right from director Daniel Aukin's rather sudden first act lights-up, catching Jodi and Elliot in the midst of what will not be their last heated conversation of the night. The actors are right on pace with the frenetic, full-steam-ahead wordplay, with Menzel's minutes-in, masterful mouthful of a hilarious rant setting a high early bar for the cast and the play as a whole. While the rhythms soon settles down to a less frenetic level, the entire cast's work only grows richer as the banter and barbs recede somewhat and they dive into the deeper dimensions of their characters.

Brittain and Gelb, who originated their roles alongside Menzel earlier this year in Aukin's world premiere Off-Broadway production, especially impress in this respect. They lend roles that both initially strike as contrasting comic stereotypes a complex, harder-to-categorize humanity beyond the more overt surface-level attributes and affectations. Menzel delivers a star turn in the best possible sense, a blazing stage presence whether precision-dropping Harmon's brash bon mots or mining Jodi's deep-seated pain from her tortured history with her father. She instantly wins one's heart over with the many laughs she elicits, and then she proceeds to pierce it with her soulful emotional range. Despite being the newcomer in the cast's core four, Groener, just recently seen on the Los Angeles stage in Indecent, fits right in with the returning trio, forging believable and individually unique rapports with each of his castmates. His is perhaps the hardest role of the piece, not only being the calmer, centering presence amid the more comic counterparts but also generating some empathy and understanding for a character who could be taken as overly cold, shallow, and vain.

And that is right in line with Harmon's overall interest here, inviting and challenging the viewer to find some level of understanding for, though not necessarily agreement with, various viewpoints on the play's key issues as expressed and embodied by the quartet. Much like the characters, with just as much food for thought offered as laughs over the play's two hours, the audience is left to mull over and figure out how one personally handles and navigates such a mental minefield in their own day-to-day, even if it may not be as extreme as seen in the Isaac home. If the psychological and emotional Pandora's Box opened by the convergence and collision of these characters doesn't come close to being tidily tied up by night's end, such is exactly the tightly achieved point of the deceptively loose-in-structure Skintight.

Will Brittain as Trey, Harry Groener as Elliot,
Eli Gelb as Benjamin, Idina Menzel as Jodi in Skintight
(photo by Chris Whitaker)

Skintight is now running at the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through Saturday, October 12.

(Special thanks to Geffen Playhouse)

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