“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This phrase has taken on a whole new meaning in the modern era, where love is celebrated in real life and on stage and commonly defies its previous heteronormative confines. Joshua Harmon’s play “Skintight,” which opened at Actor’s Express in Atlanta on Sept. 18, brings audiences up close and personal to the societal taboo of cross-generational relationships. “Skintight” is anything but subtle, and the play’s unapologetic bluntness makes it a hard pill to swallow at times 一 it places even the most awkward of family exchanges under a microscope. This is directly countered by the comedic undertones throughout the performance. Due to the intimacy of the theater, the fluidity of on-stage interactions and the pacing of transitions, the show resonated both with me and my fellow theatergoers as we laughed, gasped and rolled our eyes together for the duration of the 110-minute play.
“Skintight” follows a New York family reunion after life keeps the relatives apart for a stretch of time. Jodi Isaac (Wendy Melkonian) is recovering from a rough divorce, her 20-year-old son Benjamin Cullen (Jake Berne) is briefly back from studying abroad in Hungary and her father Elliot Issac (Chris Kayser) has a new partner who is 50 years his junior — not to mention that the woman Jodi’s ex-husband left her for is also much younger. What is meant to be a peaceful celebration of Elliot’s 70th birthday turns into an exposé of the difference between love and lust.
As I walked into the theater, I was excited to dive deep into the family tensions that were alluded to in the play’s promotions. The opening scene fully matched those expectations, with relatable characters emoting in ways I could see myself doing with little imagination. Melkonian’s explosive rant displays the leading lady’s perspective on why her life is falling apart, and from the get-go her performance showcases the genius of Harmon’s writing. By establishing the family’s backstory right away and intertwining Jodi’s physical comedy and mannerisms with setting, Harmon is able to focalize the characters’ interactions with one another as the show progresses. Harmon lets the characters shine, building off of the comedic moments he sets up in the beginning to get crowds roaring at joke after joke throughout the show.
It was special to be surrounded by an audience of people touched by issues regarding sexuality while those topics were being explored on stage. A large portion of the play centers around the family’s Hungarian roots and how men are treated differently for acting more feminine, highlighting the disconnect between Elliot and Benjamin. Harmon effectively comments on the struggles that men sometimes have with being manly and performing masculinity, themes that feel especially relevant considering the evolving idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man.
The theater itself fosters a connection between the audience and cast that allows for the soft-spoken and quiet moments of the play to shine through just as much as the in-your-face, bold moments. The small, yet packed audience sits just off the stage, forming an L-shape around a modern-style living room with a door leading to the kitchen and a staircase to the upper floors of Elliot’s four-story home. With the furthest audience member being some 50 feet away from the couch that sits center stage, the audience heard every whisper in way that larger theaters cannot accomplish even with microphones.
The cast’s interactions with their surroundings make the set feel like a genuine home. Whenever Benjamin gets upset, he rushes straight to the foot of the stairs, ready to storm away if further agitated. Jodi frequently fills the room by pacing through every possible inch of it or curling up on the couch that dominates the stage’s center. Jodi’s interactions with the room drive home how the change brought on her life by her father’s latest lover, Trey (Truman Griffin), affects her. Trey nonchalantly makes himself at home, forcibly integrating himself into the family despite Jodi’s anger at his presence.
The variable pacing of the show compounds the intimacy of the theater, capitalizing on the audience’s engagement. Harmon’s writing brings the energy of the show from a rapid boil to a simmer with his use of tension between family members, but he never cuts out the heat that allows the show to flourish. The scene transitions are smooth, yet still innovative: the dialogue comes to a natural-sounding end, the lights cut to hot pink and a rhythmic pop song plays, giving the cast time to finish what they are doing and leave the room for the next scene to begin. The movement and rhythm of the show work well, in addition to the play’s intriguing plot.
“Skintight” is an excellent example of how comedy can tackle serious topics and break them down to be relatable. An absolute must-see for Emory students, “Skintight” incites engaging thoughts and laughs that do not stop until the very end of the show.
What: “Skintight,” a new comedic play
Where: Actor’s Express at the King Plow Arts Center
887 West Marietta Street NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
When: Sept. 18 to Oct. 13
Tickets: $10 student rush tickets available on the day of performance. They must be purchased in person from the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office. Call ahead for availability at 404-733-5000.