****/***** 4 out of 5
In a theater season in which there have been, inexplicably, a surfeit of new plays that are surrealist or absurdist (or both)—some good, others derivative and uninspired—it’s refreshing to see a revival of a masterwork of the genre—Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth—in an exciting and vibrant production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. The play has seen few major productions in the past several decades, but each time it’s been produced there has been a notable feeling of societal malaise it addresses directly.
Despite being written in 1942, when its foreboding was undoubtedly centered around World War II, each new era’s ills seem to fit right into the play’s message. While the 2017 production at Theater For a New Audience in Brooklyn addressed the environmental apocalypse toward which both the play’s characters and the audience itself seemed to be hurtling, this production focuses more on our current state of social chaos. Appropriately, it features a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) director (Lilean Blain-Cruz) and cast, which drives the play’s meaning and message home in unexpected and previously unseen ways.
The Skin of Our Teeth is divided up into three acts with different stories, but all featuring the Antrobus family. Rather than the point-of-view of the Everyman, the play gives us the Every Family (Antrobus, like many of Wilder’s clever jeux de mot, evokes the Greek “anthropos” or “man”). In the first act the family faces environmental and climate disaster of biblical proportions. An ice shelf is descending south from Canada towards their home in Excelsior, New Jersey (there’s that word play again). Mr. George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith), noted inventor of such essentials as the wheel and the alphabet, invites in refugees (many of whom are biblical figures, like Moses, complete with tablets) from the freezing cold and feeds them. He does so at the expense of his household pets, a 15-foot, benevolent dinosaur who munches on the houseplants and makes cooing, plaintive moans; and a wooly mammoth who’s more akin to a friendly mutt who gets underfoot and scratches a lot. The acting and puppetry of these two characters (beautifully performed by Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr. and Sarin Monae West) is some of the most playfully elegant I’ve seen on stage, rivaling even the award winning War Horse (2011).
The second act finds the Antrobuses on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, where Mr. Antrobus is being sworn in as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. It’s a carnivalesque atmosphere, with the pull of seduction and debauchery tempting the conventioneers and George alike. Right on cue, a hurricane descends on the beach and the family is forced to escape to a rescue boat offshore (a Noah’s Ark metaphor) in order to survive this particular “end of the world” scenario. The set in this scene is utterly remarkable, the centerpiece of which is a fully functioning roller-coaster shaped giant slide that must be at least two to three stories high and on which characters go whizzing down periodically. Adam Rigg’s sets in all three acts are fabulous, making use of the Beaumont’s shockingly high ceilings, but the act two set is next level stuff.
Act Three is the aftermath of a long war, seven years it is said, evoking another well-known Seven Years War, though the uniforms (costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, whose work is stunning throughout the play) suggest the American Civil War. The family has been divided by the fighting, with father and son, Henry (Julian Robertson), having fought on opposite sides (shockingly, as both are portrayed by African Americans). Henry, an outcast at home by now, has thrown in the towel: “Did you hear me? I don’t live here. I don’t belong to anybody.” The postwar alienation of veterans is clearly universal.
As a whole, the play focuses on the utter ridiculousness of the family’s continued optimism despite one impending doomsday scenario after another. The maid, Sabina (an absolutely fantastic and comical Gabby Beans) is bewildered by it all. Early in the play she steps out of character and tells us how much she hates the play and that she wants to skip over several parts. When Mrs. Antrobus (a gregarious Roslyn Ruff) asks Sabina whether she milked the mammoth, Sabina can only reply, “I don’t understand a word of this play. — Yes, I’ve milked the mammoth.” By the end she’s resigned to doing it again: “That’s all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.” This is both the nature of theatrical performance and, Wilder suggests, humankind. The message suggests there’s no progress, just another tempestuous adventure.
Also in the third act, the play derails when a number of “cast members” come down with food poisoning. But like all the other disasters, adjustments are made. The stage manager enters, puts up the house lights in order to apologize to the audience and assigns parts to a dresser, a head of wardrobe and an usher, among others, as if we’re just in a rehearsal. One flabbergasting and (fortunately) humorous scenario after another.
The Skin of Our Teeth is not for everyone and it’s not the sort of play that should be produced frequently—it’s a lot to take in. But when it is produced it should be this great. If you’re familiar with the play and you know what you’re getting into it’s an absolute delight. But no matter what an amazing job Blain-Cruz has done in this production, it won’t reach everyone. And even though it might be helpful to have a book of annotations by your side while you watch, you can still enjoy the ride and have a few laughs while you’re at it.
The Skin of Our Teeth. Through May 29 at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont (150 West 65th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.lct.org
Photos: Julieta Cervantes