They meet in a library, where Ruth is seated at a reading table. Rowan walks up behind her and immediately begins a flirtatious conversation.
So launches Erin Mallon’s Skin Hungry, the new play opening Thursday from Tampa’s Lab Theatre Project.
Right away, audiences will know that it’s not your everyday, 21st century romance: While Rowan (we come to find out) is 23 years old, Ruth is 74.
Skin Hungry is more than a May-December love story about an odd couple. And, says director Owen Robertson, it’s much more than a revisit of a certain 1971 movie – a cult classic – that tackles similar subject matter.
“There’s going to be some similarities to Harold and Maude, but it’s not,” says Robertson, who’s also the producer and Lab Theatre Project co-founder. “It’ll feel like that at first, but then as the story goes on, everybody that knows Harold and Maude will know that they’re away from it.”
The phrase “skin hungry” is a reference to longing for the touch of another human being.
Lab’s production is the world premiere of Mallon’s play, which was published in audio form in 2020. She is a New York-based playwright and author, and the narrator of more than 550 audiobooks.
“In her description, it sounds like this is just a funny play on this subject,” explains Robertson. “But it’s really not. Part of what’s really cool about his story, and what I really loved about it, is that yeah, it’s side-splitting funny.
“But Erin gives us these moments that pop in of absolute sincerity and honesty, and humanity, and every time they pop up they really make you think. And as an audience, they’re surprising and they’re breathtaking.
“It’s a beautiful use of comedy to reveal our humanity. To me, that always the best kind of comedy. Very often comedy is derived from pain. And this play is no different.”
Ruth has a son in his 40s. And he is – to put it mildly – not happy about Mom’s new “situation.”
Comedy is, of course, harder than drama. Ask any actor. And a comedy this dark, with its myriad underlying themes, takes a particularly deft touch.
Robertson’s cast includes Roz Potenza as Ruth, Darius Autry as Rowan, Eddie Gomez as Jim and Haley Janeda as Gina the “cuddle therapist.”
“I needed actors who really embraced what these characters were, and were willing to explore,” the director says. “A lot of comedic actors just take a superficial blush at a character. And this is not that. All four of these characters require some depth, and all four of the actors have done that. They’ve done the work.
“Plus, the way Erin has written them, it’s really easy for people to do the work. Because of her script and her dialogue.”
Part of the Lab Theatre Project mission is to bring new and unproduced works to the public’s attention, with small ensemble casts. It’s an intimate venue, not ready-made for blockbusters or effects-heavy productions.
“My biggest focus as a producer is that I want a good story,” Robertson explains. “I want to tell a good story. And Erin’s told a really, really good story that needs to be heard. And her voice, as a female playwright, needs to be heard. I think she says an awful lot here; she’s really, really good.”
At the same time, Lab shows are generally not “morality plays,” with overarching social messages.
“I really try to avoid playwrights who get up on a soapbox. With that audience, more often than not you’re preaching to the choir. Tell me a good story! Entertain me as an audience, and if you interweave important social issues and cultural issues into your story, fine. I’m good with that.
“Sit me down and let me disappear into the world that you’ve created.”