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Theatre in Review: The Skin of Our Teeth (Theatre for a New Audience)

Kecia Lewis. Photo: Henry Grossman.

Has The Skin of Our Teeth, a play about mankind's knack for surviving the worst, passed its sell-by date? That thought occurred to me the other day, as I watched a talented company, under the direction of Arin Arbus, try to make sense of Thornton Wilder's fantasticated comedy -- dinosaurs, fortune tellers, muses, fast-moving glaciers, and everything else. Sooner or later, the end comes for us all; not every play is a classic for the ages like, say, Our Town. Written just before Pearl Harbor, the play must have amused and comforted an audience struggling with the new reality of world war, assuring them that this, too, would pass. What it has to say to us today is less obvious.

At first glance, Wilder's tale is filled with frisson-inducing contemporary reference points, including climate change, refugees, and humankind's eternal impulse toward war; a recent Sunday Times think piece rounded up a handful of directors who have tackled the play in recent years, for all of these reasons -- although, looking back, nobody seemed too happy about it. Yes, the play calls up all of these issues, and more, in a format that, even now, is startlingly original, following the fate of the Antrobus family and their saucy maid, Sabina, through a series of world-historical calamities. The Antrobuses are meant to be an archetypal American family of the 1940s, but they simultaneously inhabit more than one era. We see them muddling through the Ice Age; escaping, via an ark, a global flood; and struggling to emerge from the aftermath of total war. At the same time, to avoid sententiousness, the play purposely hovers on the edge of chaos: Scenery droops, unplanned blackouts occur, actors step out of character to comment on their unpalatable roles, and the stage manager is often dispatched to quell the disorder. Think Charles Darwin crossed with Noises Off, with a side order of Thomas Hobbes and a splash of homespun sentiment, and you have a sense of the peculiar cocktail shaken by the author.

Even now, it's easy to marvel at Wilder's imagination. A slide show, presented as a kind of preface, features an amusing shot of the Antrobus family standing in front of their suburban home, with Mr. Antrobus proudly clutching a wheel. (He invented it, you see, and, as the play begins, he is working on the alphabet.) The family huddles in front of a fire, accompanied by a dinosaur and mammoth. The flood begins -- where else? -- in Atlantic City, presented as a frantic party filled with conventioneers, beauty contestants, and jazz-blowing hepcats. There are newsreels, scenes of backstage farce, biblical figures, classical allusions, a roundup of philosophers, and just about anything else that happened to pass through the playwright's mind while he was seated at his writing desk.

Wilder uses the Antrobus family as the still center of three wildly stylized acts. They aren't so much characters as characteristics, a series of humors in the ancient Greco-Roman sense of the term. Mr. Antrobus is man as inventor, always coming up with a new solution to the problems of his day. Mrs. Antrobus is the maternal principle, fiercely devoted to her children's well-being; early on, she is compared to a tigress, for good reason. Sabina, once Mr. Antrobus' mistress and now the housemaid, is selfishness run rampant, opportunism decked out in petticoats. Young Henry Antrobus is man's murderous impulse; he has to be watched, lest he grab a rock and smash someone's skull. It will give you a fresh slant on the entire family when I tell you that Henry's name used to be Cain.

It's a clever, multilayered premise, dizzily balancing vaudeville comedy with unsentimental conclusions about humanity's destructive impulses, while insisting that, even in the darkest hour, hope still lingers. It must have been something in its day. But the Antrobus family, with their 1942 manners and morals and strictly defined sex roles -- Mr. A, the provider and innovator; Mrs. A, the caregiver and clubwoman -- represents a notion of family life that, in 2017, is as dead as the dodo. Further distancing us is Wilder's insistence on separating his female leads into a Madonna figure and a comic floozy. Instead of representing unchanging humanity across time, these characters embody the most perishable notions on stage. They should be our touchstone, our point of entry into the play's landscape of jangled time frames and symbols so brazenly deployed to support the author's argument.

Arbus seems to wrestle with this problem, adding all sorts of contemporary touches, including multicultural casting, updated references in certain gag lines, and a handful of musical interludes by C├ęsar Alvarez, all in the name of making Wilder's schema seem relevant to our own particular moment of turmoil. The result is definitely patchy, especially since she has no real flair for the play's oddball lightly cartooned sense of humor. The first act starts out on a fairly buoyant note, but loses traction as the stage is crowded with refugees. The second act descends all too often into noise and chaos, especially during a sequence scored by Alvarez; it is also staged in front of a green-and-yellow rain curtain - the set design is by Riccardo Hernandez -- which is so aggressively lit, by Marcus Doshi, that any actor standing in front of it is lost in the display of Technicolor sparkle and glitter. (Arbus could fix this in a trice, by getting the light level taken down.) The third act fares best; here the director manages to fuse the bleak survivalist atmosphere with a running gag in which last-minute replacements join the cast. She also pulls off one of the playwright's trademark abstractions, in which actors, representing the hours, enter and quote a number of different philosophies; this odd little mini-pageant, unfolding in the midst of wartime devastation, is surprisingly moving.

Arbus also has mixed success with her cast. David Rasche and Kecia Lewis clearly understand the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, but they often seem a little bit lost amid the bustle of the on-stage crowds; it's possible to enjoy their performances while wishing that they made stronger impressions. As Sabina, a role created by Tallulah Bankhead, the newcomer Mary Wiseman pulls out all the stops, making her an addlebrained motormouth out of a '40s screwball comedy. Sabina is often in open revolt against the play -- allowing Wiseman to throw one amusing tantrum after another, at one point refusing to perform a scene that she doesn't consider to be up to snuff, professionally speaking. Her material includes some of the script's most dated jests. Her entire first scene is a satire of old-fashioned potboilers ("Oh! Oh! Oh! Six co'clock, and the master not home yet.") but that doesn't stop her: Entering in a short, flouncy servant's uniform, bending over, allegedly to dust the furniture, like the straight woman in a vintage burlesque sketch; promenading on the Atlantic City boardwalk, parasol in hand, looking for a marriage to wreck; or lying, exhausted on the peaked roof of the Antrobus house, Wiseman instantly establishes herself as a name to watch. There are also delightful turns from Mary Lou Rosato as a boardwalk fortune teller, informing one patron after another of his or her impending doom, and William Youmans as the increasingly fed-up stage manager.

Aside from that Act II problem, Hernandez's scenery, including the frame of the Antrobus house, which falls apart spectacularly, is on the money; I especially liked the upstage drop that permanently threatens stormy weather. Similarly, Doshi's lighting creates distinct moods for the other two acts. Cait O'Connor's costumes freely draw from several styles and eras as needed; she has given Sabina a pair of suitably traffic-stopping outfits. Peter Nigrini's projection design includes the previously mentioned slide show and a newsreel, filmed in distressed black-and-white, that cleverly inserts Rasche and Lewis into vintage footage of Atlantic City. Stowe Nelson's sound design includes various storm effects, a truly alarming hurricane warning, and reinforcement for the musical numbers.

Still, The Skin of Our Teeth is unwieldy enough without adding even more disparate elements. The music includes a climactic number that put me in mind of "Make Our Garden Grow" from Leonard Berstein's Candide. It's a lovely moment, but it doesn't especially fit with everything that has come before, and it doesn't solve the problem that Wilder, who wanted so much to evoke eternity, was, ultimately,very much a captive of his time. -- David Barbour

(1 March 2017)

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