In theatre, actors are trained that an audience’s eye will immediately be drawn to the truest thing on stage. In the 32nd Actor’s Express season opening production of playwright’s Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight,” from the moment she hits the stage dragging a roller suitcase behind her, all eyes are glued on Wendy Melkonian.
As Jodi Isaac, the daughter of acclaimed global fashion designer Elliot Isaac (played with precision by the Rolex watch of Atlanta actors, Chris Kayser), Melkonian has the Herculean task of sticking most of the play’s laughs, its tears and a billion or so of its words.
Facing an empty nest with her youngest son Benjamin (in a stellar Actor’s Express debut by newcomer Jake Berne) off at school in Budapest immersed in queer studies, the wheels come off Jodi’s life when her 25-year marriage craters. Her ex-husband is marrying a gorgeous 24-year old. So, the successful lawyer decides to hop on a flight and surprise her father with a visit to celebrate his 70th birthday. He’s less than excited (“Not dying is not a cause to celebrate.”). Elliot, meanwhile, has a surprise of his own in store for Jodi — Trey (played with nuance and no shortage of bravery by Truman Griffin), his new 20-year-old gay porn star boyfriend.
But from her first encyclopedia-sized monologue, it’s Melkonian who puts most of the skin in the very fun and poignant game that is “Skintight.” It’s a performance that serves to remind longtime Atlanta theatre-goers just how lucky we are to have local actors the caliber of Melkonian and Kayser in our stratosphere. “Skintight” is also an occasion to see Melkonian, best known to many of us from her musical roles in “Sister Act” at the Alliance Theatre and “Gypsy” at Actor’s Express, to shine in a straight acting role, using all the comedic and dramatic skills in her toolbox, accumulated working onstage in Atlanta over the past two decades.
“What do they even talk about?!” Melkonian as Jodi muses aloud about her ex-husband and his new wife, who’s four years older than his son. “I want to see the transcripts! Her natural state of being is wet. I get it.”
To say the Isaac family likes to talk is an understatement. Comparatively speaking, they make Lorelei and Rory Gilmore look like Shields and Yarnell in a Harold Lloyd two-reel comedy.
“Getting that opening monologue down was a slow burn,” says Melkonian laughing. “In rehearsals, I was staring at all my highlighted lines in the script and Chris said, ‘That’s a lot of yellow.’ But it’s great because Josh Harmon writes it the way real humans talk. And this is a language I’m familiar with. This is a New York Jewish family. My parents were born and bred in Brooklyn. This monologue forces you to change up your thinking and hit a lot of different beats. You have to get it in your bones before you can play around. It’s daunting but I love a challenge.”
And as much a treat it is for Atlanta audiences to watch Melkonian and Kayser finally working together on stage, it’s an even bigger kick for Melkonian. “We’ve both been cast in a couple of the same shows but we haven’t shared scenes together until now,” she says. “At one point during rehearsal, I just stopped and went, ‘Oh my god, I’m on stage with Chris Kayser. This is amazing!”
But it’s the mother and son scenes the actress shares with 2018 University of Georgia graduate and fellow kid of a Sandy Springs dentist, Jake Berne, that give “Skintight” its heartbeat. On the third day of rehearsal during a table read, the two actors immediately bonded over their water bottle of choice.
“She pulled out this Camp Barney Medintz water bottle and I realized we had the same one!” recalls Berne, laughing. “It’s a Jewish summer camp in the North Georgia mountains that we both went to that’s incredibly special to each of us. Then we found out we both went to Riverwood in Sandy Springs. From there, we just clicked.”
Adds Melkonian: “Basically, we’ve lived the same life, just 25 years apart! And can I just say, watching Jake work in this play has blown me away. His physicalization of Benjy is just amazing. He doesn’t do anything remotely like it out of character offstage.”
Both actors say their “couch time” scene near the end of Act One is among their favorites in the script. The scene calls for flying witticisms (“I swear to GOD, mom.” “You don’t believe in god, Benjy.” “I’ll start.”), a shared bag of popcorn and an unexpected entrance by Trey, clad in only a jockstrap, an undergarment emblazoned with the name of Benjy’s granddad.
“When you have a great scene partner, it allows you to feel safe, to feel supported,” Melkonian explains. “Even if something goes south, they’re going to be there for you.”
Sometimes, that something that goes south is a stray kernel of popcorn in your windpipe. Twice during the play’s opening weekend, Melkonian choked on a piece of the snack food while delivering rapid-fire dialogue. “Jake was on that water bottle as soon as I got the first sputter out,” she says. “We had to adlib a couple of lines and he was right there with me. Not only as Benjy, but also as Jake who was making sure Wendy was OK. I just love him so much.”
Adds Berne: Sometimes when you’ve had an incredible career, people can sometimes lose the ability to be kind. I was really nervous coming into this play. But Wendy and Chris are just inherently kind people. A lot of nights Truman and I will stand at the top of the staircase [on set] and listen to Wendy and Chris do the scene they have at the end of the play and our jaws are on the floor. It’s a masterclass in acting.”
And while Melkonian will bid Jodi Isaac and her new-found family farewell when “Skintight” closes Sunday, she’s grateful to add the character to her lengthy list of iconic characters she’s brought to life on Atlanta stages over the last 21 years.
“Playing a role like this is a gift,” says Melkonian. “Even when you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s still a hustle. And sometimes it works against me that I’ve been here for this long. Someone new and shiny is sometimes more likely to capture a casting director’s eye. I love Jodi Isaac and I love that she’s a modern woman. And I love that’s she’s a complete bad ass.”
“Skintight,” a play by Joshua Harmon and directed by Freddie Ashley is the 32nd season opener at Actor’s Express. It plays through Oct.13. For tickets or more info: actors-express.com.
Photos courtesy of Actor’s Express. Black and white photos by Kevin Harry. Set photos by Casey Gardner Photography