Skin Deep by Jon Lonoff. Directed by Kevin Paul Wixsom. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"I will kiss your lips, wherever they are!"
If Tennessee Williams had written "The Glass Menagerie" as a slap-ass comedy it might have come out like Jon Lonoff's play "Skin Deep", now on stage at the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, MA. A Town Players production directed by Kevin Paul Wixsom, it is a true laff-riot as they used to say in promotional copy back in New York in the 1970s. The play is set "a few years ago" and it certainly has that feeling for the foursome with whom we are concerned are certainly not contemporary but show us a time not too long ago when men were shyer and women were more defensive than they all are today.
Sheila Mulligan Whiting arranges a blind date for her sister Maureen Mulligan with a man she hasn't even met herself. Sheila is concerned about the solitary life her sister lives. She's asked her husband Squire Whiting, Jr. to help but Squire isn't all that interested; after all he's had a thing for Maureen, an unresolved thing, and other men impose a restriction on his own feelings, minimal as they are.
If you think of Maureen as William's heroine Laura, Sheila as mother Amanda, Squire as brother Tom and the blind date-Joe Spinelli- as the gentleman caller, you almost have this play down to rights. Maureen is shy and masks it with one-liners. Sheila is self-involved to the point of unnecessary plastic surgeries, Squire has social problems just like Tom and Joe is so charming that he stumbles over his own tongue and makes the most delicious mistakes in his socializing attempts.
Monica Bliss is delightful as Maureen. She manages to sound more deep Queens, New York, than any native could muster. Her accent is key to the players intonations and she is joined in this accent-mania by Leah Marie Parker who is almost as good at it. Thomas Suski brings a Bowery Boys Brooklyn accent to the mix and Todd Hamilton adds a totally different neutral accent when he speaks making his character stand apart from the others which works very well for the relationships.
Bliss gives Maureen a softness not found in the dialogue. We watch her raise her internal fists, defensive and appealing, whenever she smiles. It is clear that behind the toothsome grin is a girl aching to be THE girl. It makes for a powerful heroine in a too-dreadful person; like Cinderella, or Tennessee Williams' Laura, the touch of a blessing is all that's required for the woman she could be to become the woman she really is.
Sheila is portrayed by Parker like a classic movie comedienne, a Lucille Ball or a Carol Lombard. There is nothing subtle in her work and this allows her to blatantly break through the shells of her sister and her husband. Nothing they do can keep her from breaking through, breaking in, breaking out.
Todd Hamilton is so laid back in this family triangle that we have wonder what drugs he's on. He is the ideal foil, a man who listens and only answers when he must, just like William's Tom. Hamilton is almost touching in his scene with Maureen in the second act when he confesses his long withheld feelings. The romance of a brother and sister can be lovely and here it is just that.
Excellent work, overwhelming empathy, is what Thomas Suski brings to Joe Spinelli, the gentleman caller. From his telephone monologue at the top of the play to his presentation of a rose near the end his performance is nothing less than endearing. He turns two snapping turtles into regional ladies. He turns a diffident guy into a charmer. As for his own character, he converts the awkward into the charming, the pawn into a prince.
Director Kevin Paul Wixsom has delivered a delightful piece of theater to his audience and kept his fine cast on the mark. This kind of comedy is much more delicate a project than might be assumed and he has the good luck of timing, the good taste of casting and the good sense of choices. The final result of three goods is one fabulous.
Leah Marie Parker, Monica Bliss; photo: Laura Gardner
Thomas Suski; photo: Laura Gardner
Todd Hamilton, Parker, Bliss, Suski; photo: Laura Gardner
Skin Deep runs for one more weekend, through March 22, at the Whitney Center for the Arts, located on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield, MA. For information or tickets call 413-443-9279 or go on line to www.townplayers.org.