Friday, October 16, 2009

The Thickness of Skin

Everything you need to know about the Barrow Group's explosive revival of Clare McIntyre's The Thickness of Skin can be summed up by its climax. Eddie (Michael Chenevert), a homeless carpenter, had been living with the too-empathetic Laura (Alison Wright) before his stubbornness led him to violence. Now he's broken back in, drunk, and in the process of getting drunker. He hits the Christmas tree (among other things) as he tries to clear a space to sleep, which is when Laura returns-- with her wealthy and entitled brother, Michael (Myles O'Connor); her sister-in-law, Roanna (Karin Sibrava), who is weary on account of being so anal; and her college-bound nephew, Jonathan (Eli Gelb). They've been to the theater, and are in their finest; Eddie, indignant, can only muster up the strength to ask why he, too, was not invited.

It's a wonderful picture, one that captures McIntyre's guiding question in a nutshell--"In what ways are we responsible to help our fellow human beings?"--and yet a picture that does not reduce the complex question of status and humanity in America to simple moral relativism, that does not swiftly and uncomfortably blame everything on capitalism in an effort to move on. In fact, many of the scenes in The Thickness of Skin, save for a few tentative ones at the play's beginning, are as terrifically crowded and thought-provoking.

Some of this has to do with the framing: Jacob White's direction is so tight that the on-stage arguments appear to be sloppy, as verbal fights often are in real life. His aesthetic selections are dead on, too: Eddie's clothes may be dirty, but he's proud of their name-brand logos, and there's much to be made of Jonathan's lazy and mismatched attires. Even the set reflects themes of the play: all the furniture (save for a table) is made out of simple wooden chairs (stacked, they become a wall, or a bureau). It's a mark of Eddie's profession, but also of deliberate function over luxurious form.

There's only one part of The Thickness of Skin that comes off as accidentally rough, and that's in the circumstances explaining why Laura invited Eddie to her home in the first place. While some of this is explained by some persistent flirting, especially given Laura's loneliness (the shelter's manager [Wendy Vanden Heuvel] points out that Laura didn't try to save any of the less attractive homeless), there doesn't always seem to be a real connection between Wright and Chenevert. It's not just Laura who "just wanted a problem that you could fucking solve"; it's McIntyre, too, never mind that the problem isn't, perhaps can't be, solved.

The cast is very strong, but it's Chenevert who makes this show: Eddie doesn't hide anything, and neither does he. His directness allows us to empathize with his inability to compromise or even to recognize his own flaws; it also gives a voice to the homeless that is so often missing: the voice not of a victim, but of a survivor. "It's all middle-class bullshit," he says to Michael, who attempts to duck the issue. "I have no home, I have no job, what's difficult about that? What don't you understand?" Ultimately, the thick skin Eddie's grown to survive what he perceives as betrayals in his life, has made him unable to alter his sense of self-worth (and to some degree, why should he reduce himself to charity?), and by settling for nothing less than he deserves, he winds up having to settle with nothing.

McIntyre has another trick up her sleeve, too: an unbalanced woman named Imogen (Heuvel), who lives near Michael and has developed a crush on Jonathan--mainly because, innocent in his youth, he doesn't scorn Imogen just for being vociferously different. Heuvel nails this role, though part of her success is that we're in a closed space and so can't get away from her, as we almost certainly would if we were on a train with her. Which emphasizes a different sort of thick-skinned person: we, in the audience, who try to remain uninvolved. The Thickness of Skin isn't exactly a cry to action, but it is a cry all the same, one that begs that we at least actually look and acknowledge our fellow man.

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