Thornton Wilder’s 1942, Pulitzer Prize-winning “tragicomedy” The Skin of Our Teeth has received only two Broadway revivals (1955 and 1975) and a Central Park staging in 1998. Nevertheless, for all its dramaturgical, philosophical, and technical difficulties, it remains a favorite of high schools, community and regional theaters, and even low-budget professional companies.
Just two years ago, I sat through nearly simultaneous productions by the Heights Players (of Brooklyn) and the Articulate Theatre Company. For all their occasional values neither came close to convincing me that the play—as a play, not as a document of historical relevance—was worth the trouble.
Now comes director Arin Arbus’s extravagant, imaginative, and—apart from several contemporary references—faithful production by Theatre for a New Audience at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Wilder’s drama couldn’t ask for a better production. It may not make you like or understand Wilder’s determinedly anachronistic work any better but Arbus and her ample crew (including 35 actors! Count ‘em!) of artists and technicians definitely know theatrical CPR.
Wilder’s title signifies how we, the human race, have survived such catastrophic events as the Ice Age, the Deluge, and incessant war by “the skin of our teeth,” always improving humanity until the next disaster knocks us down again. It makes you think of where the play might have gone had it been written in the age of nuclear weapons and the Internet.
Sparked by the imminence of World War II, The Skin of Our Teeth is a fantastical, panoramic allegory that, under the influence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Brecht, and expressionism, fearlessly smashes theatrical conventions. This includes the purposeful technical accidents and missed cues that keep reminding us we’re watching a play.
Then there are the many metatheatrical, deprecatingly self-referential comments delivered straight to us by the seductive, Lilith-like maid, Sabina (Mary Wiseman), who doesn’t hesitate to snipe in the actress’s own persona at the play’s incomprehensibility. With flaming red hair resembling the curly coiffures of both Lucille Ball and the original Sabina, Tallulah Bankhead, Wiseman perfectly embodies the saucily ditzy, comically incisive, self-confidently strutting temptress.
Sabina works for the Excelsior, NJ, Antrobus family, headed by Everyman stand-in George (David Rasche)—inventor of the wheel, the multiplication table, and the alphabet—and his feisty wife, Mrs. Antrobus (Kecia Lewis). Their kids are Gladys (Kimber Monroe) and the murderous Henry (Reynaldo Piniella), formerly known as Cain. Nor must we forget their Jurassic era pets, verging on extinction, a dinosaur (Fred Epstein) and mammoth (Eric Farber).
The three-act plot (running two and a half hours) begins during the Ice Age when it’s so cold “the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks.” Take that, climate change deniers! A swarm of freezing immigrants (including the bearded Moses [Robert Langdon Lloyd], hinting at the Jewish diaspora) seeks warmth at the Antrobus home. Take that, wall builders!
Act Two takes us to Atlantic City, where George’s political aspirations as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals are played out (many will search for Trumpian innuendoes) as he and the missus celebrate their 5,000th anniversary. Then the Deluge drowns the world, with the Antrobuses and the world’s fauna (lots of elaborate masks and animal costumes) riding it out aboard a large boat, like Noah and the ark.
In Act Three, seven years of population-decimating war end with the Antrobus males returning from the battlefield, only to battle one another, before George resolves that mankind will survive. The play moves toward its ambiguous ending as Sabina, now a wartime camp follower, returns to the household chores she was doing when the play began and wishes us goodnight.
Wilder’s play, sliding from philosophical profundity one moment to comic archness the next, gets a high-energy performance, with rousingly intelligent performances by each leading actor and most supporting ones. Rasche is completely at home as the paterfamilias, Lewis makes Mrs. Antrobus a refreshingly defiant defendant of women’s rights, and Piniella is thoroughly effective as the dangerous son.
A distinctively effective score by César Alvarez of the Lisps contributes mightily, some of it sung as solos and some as impressive choral music. The impressively flexible scenic designs of Riccardo Hernandez (much of the action occurs on the roof of the disassembled Antrobus home), the wildly eclectic costumes and puppets of Cait O’Connor, the flickering projections of Peter Nigrini, and the multifarious lighting of Marcus Doshi make this revival worth seeing, even if the play’s not one of your favorites.
Difficult and uneven as it is, The Skin of Our Teeth, in its ambitious aspirations, makes most current playwriting look puny. TFNA’s revival is a rare chance to see it as it deserves to be seen.
The Skin of Our Teeth
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through March 19
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).