By Harry Forbes
That always-rewarding playwright Joshua Harmon has come up with a generally amusing comedy (albeit with serious undertones) about an unhappy 40-something divorcee who pays a surprise (and unwanted) visit to her gay fashion-designer father on the occasion of his 70th birthday. “It’s not an achievement to not die,” her father observes sardonically.
Idina Menzel, in a rare departure from musicals, is terrific as the self-absorbed, one minute loving, the next spiteful, daughter who arrives a bundle of raw nerves as her ex-husband is poised to marry a vapid 24-year-old. Her comic timing is really fabulous throughout.
Her distant father Elliot (Jack Wetherall) has a 20-year-old lover Trey (Will Brittain), the latest in a string of boyfriends, but this one may be more real than the others, as Trey resolutely identifies himself as Elliot’s “partner.” Adding to the mix is the imminent arrival of Jodi’s lackadaisical 20-year-old son Ben (Eli Gelb), who happens to be gay, and is on leave from a summer in Budapest majoring in Queer Studies, while exploring the Jewish family tree. (Elliot’s parents had fled Hungary during the Holocaust.)
Completing the unorthodox household are Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), a Hungarian maid who seems to have an unlikely bond with Trey, and a servant Jeff (Stephen Carrasco) who says little and is treated with arrogant disdain by Trey.
Harmon’s play, generally quite entertaining, doesn’t quite seem to me on the level of “Significant Others” or last season’s “Admissions,” but it's still quite worthy. Part of the problem is that the characters here, though all demonstrating some good traits, unpleasantly veer towards the sour. But the basic setup is intriguing, and it's especially amusing to watch Jodi’s reaction to Trey, whom she refuses to accept as a member of the family, though she’s otherwise nonplussed about her father and son’s gayness.
Besides family and the nature of love, Harmon’s main theme is the supremacy of youth and beauty, despite all we’ve been traditionally taught about the inner self being most important. Elliot effuses dreamily about Trey’s beauty in a late monologue that may strike some as a bit icky, especially when he says he wants to sleep on sheets made from his young lover’s skin. Harmon gets further mileage from several Botox gags.
Elliot is the most buttoned-up character, but Wetherall captures the enigmatic contradictions. The well-buffed Brittain -- who casually parades through the living room in a thong in one scene -- is superficially the dumb boy toy, but his Okie character shows more substance as the play progresses. Gelb is also impressive as Elliot’s more privileged-than-he-admits grandson, and his midnight exchange with Trey on the living room couch is deftly played.
Though Mace and Carrasco have the least to say as the servants, their body language speaks volumes. And Mace’s ascent up the stairs with a heavy suitcase is the most memorable staircase maneuvering since Julie Halston made her hilariously drunken ascent in “You Can’t Take It With You” a few seasons back. In fact, every time a character climbs or descends on those steps, we witness little gems of acting and direction.
Set designer Lauren Helpern has designed a coolly elegant West Village duplex set for Elliot including that tall staircase which we see in side view.
Frequent Harmon collaborator Daniel Aukin (“Bad Jews,” “Admissions”) is finely attuned to the playwright’s rhythms and the quirkiness and contradictions of his characters.
Jess Goldstein’s apt costumes and Pat Collins’ classy lighting are further pluses on the production side.
(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46
Th Street; 212.719.1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through August 26)Print this post