2017-2018 Season

Skintight Design Statements


Lauren Helpern - Set Design

The set model for "Skintight."

When I first read Joshua Harmon’s script for Skintight, the set seemed relatively straightforward: a realistic living room in a West Village brownstone. However, when we looked at a model of what everyone will think of when they hear “brownstone” on stage, we realized it didn’t meet the demands of the show, practically or aesthetically. I had always imagined this set as double height because it needs to immediately convey great wealth, and volume is a luxury in this city. A double height space also let me put a staircase front and center and allowed for multiple entrances and exits to other parts of the home. I went back to photos of brownstones where the owners had removed the back part of the parlor floor to open up the space to the garden level. Even more exciting to me were the few brownstones that had been connected to back buildings, probably former stables. These spaces had height and bold architectural details, like skylights. The director, Daniel Aukin, and I started to explore what a space like this could be if it were gut renovated. Daniel talked about the room being like a jewel box, so we looked at marble walls and other high-end finishes, along with details like linear vents and fireplaces. As with real life renovations, we had to make compromises along the way to fit into the budget! To counter this beautiful pristine interior, we are framing the room with the cross-section of the building, exposing its crumbling inner structure.

The computer set rendering for "Skintight."


Jess Goldstein - Costume Design

As a costume designer the first step in my process is to read the script. I found Skintight  to be immediately evocative of a very particular New York world of people, and I was very excited to see how specifically and satirically the characters are drawn by playwright Joshua Harmon. It was very easy to imagine them in my mind. Elliot Isaac seems to bear a more than passing resemblance to Calvin Klein, a fashion designer whose career and brand have always been based on the sexuality of youth. Elliot appears to be not only obsessed with nubile male beauty but also, like Calvin, with a very expensive, minimal, and sterile style of living. I looked at lots of photos of Calvin, many with his recent boyfriends, who, like the character of Trey, all appear to be several decades younger. They're very much the same type as Trey, All-American and muscular and very comfortable in their bodies. It was fascinating to observe how Calvin and the boys were often dressed in the same tight, form-fitting clothes, which were far more age-appropriate on the boys. The two characters who work for Elliot in his townhouse, his housekeeper Orsolya and his houseboy Jeffrey, will be dressed as an extension of Elliot's design aesthetic. Clean, well-tailored lines in serene tones of white, black, and greys. Idina Menzel plays Elliot's daughter, Jodi. We meet her at an emotional crisis as her marriage has just fallen apart. Her costumes may somehow reflect that disarray and uncertainty, jarring and disrupting the controlled placidity of Elliot's world.The final character of Skintight isBenjamin, Jodi's 20-yearold son. He is a somewhat awkward, yet blunt, out gay college student, majoring in Queer Theory. Director Daniel Aukin suggested he represent Elliot's worst nightmare, as Ben is totally unimpressed by Elliot and his career and has no interest in fashion or style. I imagine Ben in unobtrusive shirts, sweaters, and khakis, slightly rumpled and careless.

Eli Gelb as Benjamin and Idina Menzel as Jodi in "Skintight." Photo by Joan Marcus.


Eric Shimelonis - Sound Design

Joshua Harmon's writing and Daniel Aukin's directing aesthetic has me tending toward a wonderfully minimal approach to sound and music for Skintight . There will be a handful of practical sounds to bring the set and the action to life, and transition music will consist of a cycle of spare piano compositions that complement the emotional complexities of the play.


Skintight is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through August 26, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2017-2018 Season, Skintight

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Queer Eye on Horatio Alger


Benjamin’s birthday gift to Elliot, a copy of Horatio Alger’s juvenile novel Ragged Dick, is an astute choice. Alger’s uplifting message that anyone can pull themselves up “by the bootstraps” feels archaic today, but the discovery of Alger’s homosexuality, made long after his death, provides relevant insights to the characters of Skintight.

The first edition of "Ragged Dick"
by Horatio Alger (1895).

Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899) was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the Gilded Age. His breakthrough Ragged Dick (1867) introduced a uniquely American hero: the poor youth who rises to respectability through hard work, perseverance, and “pluck.” The story follows an orphaned shoeshine boy on the streets of New York, as he educates himself and advances in society, with support from some wealthy businessmen who take an interest. Ragged Dick sold so well that Alger recycled the “rags-to-riches” plotline in nearly 100 books. Although never esteemed as a great literary talent, Alger’s self-help message impacted generations beyond his own lifetime. (Figures as disparate as Groucho Marx and Ernest Hemingway acknowledged his influence.)

Alger was the youngest son of a respected Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. A sickly but intelligent boy, he aspired to become a writer but also studied religion at Harvard. He briefly held a position as a Unitarian minister, until rumors of sexual activity with teenage boys spread through his congregation. Out of respect for his father’s reputation, the church agreed to sweep the scandal under the rug, provided Alger would never again work in the clergy.

Alger fled to New York in 1866. He visited the Newsboys’ Lodging House, where he met the homeless boys who inspired his books. At a time when authors did not own copyrights, Alger could earn a modest living, but not a fortune. He supplemented his income tutoring for wealthy families and lived alone, although sometimes in the company of boys he befriended, until his death. In 1972, the discovery of the church scandal and Alger’s presumed homosexuality sparked new interest in his work. In his essay, “The Gentle Boy From the Dangerous Classes,” Michael Moon interprets the Alger plot as a “particular brand of homoerotic romance as a support for capitalism.” Moon identifies the importance of older, wealthy men who take an interest in Alger’s young and explicitly good-looking heroes. Moon’s reading is an example of the scholarship Benjamin might explore in his queer theory course, and provides a historical lens for considering Elliot’s relationship with the much younger Trey.

The relatively young academic field of Queer Studies emerged in the 1970s as an outgrowth of women’s studies, African-American studies, and other identity-based fields. Early courses emphasized the hidden history of gay and lesbian lives. Next, “queer theory” emerged in English and literature departments, examining gender as a social construct and sexual identity as a kind of “performance.” In the late 1980s, City University of New York and City College of San Francisco created the first departments for LGBTQ studies. Today, many U.S. universities and colleges offer classes, majors, and even graduate degrees in Queer Studies -- with connections to many academic disciplines, including history, biology, philosophy, and social sciences.

Skintight is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through August 26, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Skintight

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Hungarian Jews and the Holocaust


Eli Gelb as Benjamin in "Skintight."
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In Skintight, Jodi Isaac’s son Benjamin is in the midst of a semester abroad in Hungary, where he’s been exploring his family’s roots as Eastern European Jews. Now self-identified Americans, the Isaac family has been living in the United States for nearly 100 years, and memories of Jodi’s grandparents’ lives in Hungary are distant ones. But Jewish experiences of the Holocaust in Hungary in the 1930s and 1940s loom large in the history of any family of Hungarian Jewish descent.

The seeds of Jewish persecution in Hungary before and during World War II were sown at the end of World War I. Hungary, which in the early part of the 20th century existed as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fought alongside Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria in World War I as a member of the Central Powers. After being defeated by the Allies in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up, and Hungary was greatly reduced in size and population. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Hungary sought an alliance with Nazi Germany, who supported Hungary’s desire to regain the land it had lost at the end of World War I. Allyship with the intensely anti-Semitic Germany spurred anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary, including a drastic restriction on the number of Jews allowed in an array of professions in Hungary, a draft that forced young Jewish men into labor units, and a racial law defining who was to be considered “Jewish.”

The first massacre of Hungarian Jews took place in 1941, when some 18,000 residents were identified by the Hungarian government as “Jewish foreign nationals,” deported to Kamenets-Podolsk in German-controlled Ukraine, and murdered. In 1942, another 1,000 Jews were murdered by the Hungarian military, who claimed to be in pursuit of Serbian partisans. Hungary joined the Axis Powers alongside Germany in December 1941, but after suffering huge losses on the battlefield, Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy attempted to withdraw from its alliance with Germany. In retaliation, Hitler’s army invaded Hungary in March 1944 and established a fascist government loyal to Germany. Under this new government, the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos, and during the spring of 1944, over 435,000 Jews were deported to the Polish concentration camp of Auschwitz and killed.

That fall, Horthy publicly announced that Hungary would break ties with Germany and seek a peace agreement with the Allies, but in response, Hitler overthrew Horthy’s government and put the savagely anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party, led by Ferenc Szálasi, into power. Szálasi’s government terrorized Jews in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, killing over 80,000 of them in Budapest alone and sending another 85,000 on death marches to the Austrian border, while forcing another 70,000 into ghettos.

The Soviet army liberated Hungary in April 1945. All told, around 568,000 Hungarian Jews had died during the Holocaust -- almost equivalent to the entire population of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, today. After the war, only about 144,000 Jews remained in Hungary as survivors, and around 70,000 of those soon left Hungary for Israel or Western countries, largely due to Hungary’s poor economic conditions and remaining anti-Semitic policies.

The suffering endured by Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust is almost impossible to imagine, but it is important to remember the magnitude of their tragedy. In the world of Skintight, the Holocaust can feel so distant, but as Benjamin discovers during his semester in Hungary, there is no one who remains untouched by it.

Will Brittain, Jack Wetherall, Idina Menzel, and Eli Gelb in "Skintight." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Skintight is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through August 26, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Skintight

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