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Skin Deep

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There's plenty of goodwill emanating from the WorkShop Theater Company, where Jon Lonoff's new play Skin Deep just opened. If the term "feel-good" is thrown around a bit too often, it definitely more than a little appropriate for this warm-hearted almost-romantic comedy, something of a larger, funnier, and less self-indulgent - yet ultimately less meaningful - Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune.

While this play centers around two people exploring the breadth and depth of their relationship, there's not much romance as such; Lonoff is always more interested in throwing out a joke or two or six than in examining the complex workings of the human heart. Perhaps that's because Lonoff himself sees the world of dating as something of a comedy routine, a continual give and take between a performer and an audience wherein some jokes land and others fall resoundingly flat.

At the very least, that's the quality he's brought to his story about Maureen Mulligan (Michele Foor) and Joseph Spinelli (Jim Ligon); she's learned to pepper her speech with jokes to hide insecurities about her weight and appearance, while he's almost dangerously forthright, saying everything that comes to his mind. While they both know they're perfect for each other, it takes them a long time to admit it to each other or themselves.

They were set up on the date by Maureen's sister Sheila (Tracy Newirth) and her husband Squire (Jed Dickson), who are having problems of their own: Sheila undergoes a non-stop series of cosmetic surgeries to hang onto the attractive and much-desired Squire, who may or may not have long ago held designs on Maureen, who introduced him to Sheila. With Maureen particularly vulnerable to both hurting and being hurt, the time is ripe for all these unspoken issues to bubble to the surface, and that is, of course, exactly what happens.

It's difficult not to wish that, at times, Lonoff had eschewed a few of the overly familiar devices he employs in telling his story. Funny as they do often prove, his contrivances for getting the characters to show up in Maureen's apartment (the appropriately dingy design of which was provided by Julia Hahn and lit by Richard Kent Green) grow tiresome after a while. So does his reliance on Sheila and Squire to flat-out state the story's main message: love can conquer appearance. The reconciliation of their differences late in the show is the show's most painfully obvious (and unnecessary) moment, stretching out an already thin second act.

Still, Lonoff handles all his situations, predictable or not, with a fair amount of flair, and many of the jokes he's concocted really are funny. At the performance I attended, the laughter was literally show-stopping at a couple of points, never an insignificant feat in a theater of any size. Director Marc Raphael knows how to get the most out of the best of the script, but can't camouflage the more dire connections to convention that keep the work somewhat earthbound.

The performers are much the same: Foor has a decent enough sense for comedy, and can always wrangle a laugh or two out of the material, but many of Maureen's barbs bear something of a scripted quality that dulls their impact. Sheila, managing all manner of family feuds between her botox injections and eye touch-ups, is a more inspired comic creation; Newirth brings her to natural, zany life, and frequently threatens to steal the show outright from the other actors. Ligon brings some earnest feeling and light comedy to the anti-romantic Joe, while Dickson is fine as the show's straight man.

Despite Lonoff's valiant attempts, however, much of Skin Deep is a bit too obvious to dig very deep below the surface of its subject. Even so, it's an often winning play, with enough good-humored laughs and sentiment to at least keep you smiling from beginning to end, if only really on the surface.


WorkShop Theater Company
Skin Deep
Through November 22
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
The WorkShop, 312 West 36th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.695.4173

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