Age is just a number, right? And beauty, as we all know, is only skin-deep.
The truth of these consoling clichés is severely tested in “Skintight,” Joshua Harmon’s comedy of acute chronological consciousness, which opened on Thursday in a sharply directed production by Daniel Aukin at the Geffen Playhouse.
Idina Menzel, bringing all her Tony-winning radiance to the non-musical role she performed last year off-Broadway, plays Jodi Isaac, a 40-something Los Angeles lawyer whose husband dumped her for a 24-year-old habitué of SoulCycle. (She dismissively refers to her successor as “the little spinner.”)
Everywhere Jodi turns these days there’s another troubling number. Her father, Elliot (Harry Groener), is a wealthy designer about to hit 70. This milestone birthday has occasioned Jodi’s surprise visit with her son, Benjamin (a delectably nebbish-y Eli Gelb), to her dad’s sleek New York townhouse, where they discover that his new love interest is the exact age of his grandson.
Cut from the same youth-worshiping crisp cotton of Calvin Klein, Elliot doesn’t appreciate this unexpected intrusion. He’d rather not be reminded of his precise age when he’s finally found the young man of his dreams, who just happens to be 50 years his junior.
Trey (Will Brittain) has moved into the townhouse and made himself right at home. Jodi, though not especially territorial, is irked by Trey’s presumption. She only learns about their domestic arrangement after asking him to disappear for a few days so she can enjoy a family weekend. But as Elliot’s live-in “partner,” he already considers himself family.
Jodi’s nerves are too frayed to deal with this rather stubborn Oklahoma boy-toy. She fled Los Angeles on the red-eye to avoid hearing about her ex-husband’s engagement party. She needs paternal solace and succor, though she knows she’s not likely to get it from Elliot, whose minimalism isn’t just a design aesthetic but an emotional worldview. (Groener finds an efficiency even in the character’s movement, as if one extraneous step or gesture would destroy Elliot’s carefully curated self-presentation.)
The dramatic scheme of “Skintight” is rather simple: Four characters of different temperaments are locked in the most luxuriously modern of domestic boxes for a weekend. (Lauren Helpern’s scenic design gives us just enough to imagine the rest of Elliot’s enviable West Village showcase home.) Two discreet servants (played by Kimberly Jürgen and Jeff Skowron) prepare sleeping arrangements, bring in drinks and offer mute commentary on the affluent action.
Harmon, author of “Bad Jews” and “Significant Other,” both produced at the Geffen, specializes in a comedy of awkward abrasiveness. Insecure yet unmistakably arrogant, superficial yet deeply wounded, his characters are rude in personal color and somewhat washed out in soul.
However trying their company can be to one another and sometimes to us, the audience, they are hilariously and squirm-inducingly human. When Menzel launches into one of Jodi’s tirades, aggression and neediness wage an internal battle that inevitably ends in a draw.
Jodi is supposed to be a lawyer at a large L.A. firm, but mostly what we see is a daughter who wants her father to heal her broken heart and reassure her that love is ultimately greater than lust. She’s barking up the wrong tree. Elliot is drawn to Trey not for his intellect or cultural sensibility but for his youthful beauty and sexual ebullience.
“I’d like to sleep in a bed with sheets made from your skin,” he tells Trey with creepy tenderness. Say what you will about Elliot’s moral refinement, he is a man of exquisite taste.
When Trey rips off his shirt, it as though he were unveiling an erotic sculpture. Brittain, who (along with Menzel and Gelb) is reprising his performance from the Roundabout Theatre Company production, fleshes out the part to perfection.
Harmon pairs off his characters for scrupulously observed exchanges that explore different aspects of his thematic territory. Benjamin, who’s studying queer theory in college but has been spending the semester in Hungary to connect with the family roots no one seems to know (or want to know) much about because of the Holocaust, recognizes Trey from porn videos.
He shares this news with his mother, who demands to see one on the spot. It’s a perfect example of the boundary-blurring too-muchness of Harmon’s characters, the affectionate extravagance that turns from squealing to stomach-churning in a blink.
Trey and Benjamin have a scene together, in which Trey is seated on the couch in nothing but one of Elliot’s jockstrap designs. Being in proximity to such overwhelming masculine beauty is so intoxicating to shambling Benjamin that he has trouble remembering that this tantalizing object of desire belongs to his grandfather.
Hands off! Harmon could have made this conflict the mechanism of his plot, but he’s reluctant to contrive a dramatic crisis. The problem is that comedy needs pressure, and the pace of “Skintight” grows languid over the course of its two acts.
Harmon might like to be Chekhov, but his gifts for snappy repartee and clearly categorized comic characters tilt more in the direction of Neil Simon. There’s a commercial appeal to the writing, a crowd-pleasing directness that would benefit from a tighter structure.
It’s not that “Skintight” is superficial. The place of beauty in our lives is a profound subject, and Harmon offers a complex understanding that respects the hazardous yet life-enhancing power of physical pulchritude.
Elliot, like Blanche DuBois, knows that the opposite of death is desire, and that skin-deep can cut to the marrow of our being. But more alluring than the play’s truth is the harmoniousness of the ensemble, led by a majestic musical theater star who, it turns out, can transform a comic monologue into a power ballad of luminous neuroticism.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 12
Info: (310) 208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes