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Theatre in Review: The Skin of Our Teeth (Lincoln Center Theater/Vivian Beaumont Theater)

Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Juliana Cervantes.

The Skin of Our Teeth is an American classic, a play with which each generation must wrestle; it's a highly original work, the product of a fiendishly theatrical imagination, and it very well may be unstageable. Yes, Eliza Kazan's original 1942 production enjoyed a healthy run but, since then, Thornton Wilder's fable has resisted the efforts of Alan Schneider, Jose Quintero, and, most recently, Arin Arbus, among others. (Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green tried to musicalize it, only to throw up their hands; years later, Joseph Stein, John Kander, and Fred Ebb took it on; their version -- variously titled All About Us and Over and Over -- never made it to New York.)

And yet, it remains irresistible to directors, designers, and actors. It's easy to see why: A comic triptych of humanity on the brink, it has plenty to say in a time of pandemic, war, and climate change. But it is a bundle of contradictions: The first act takes place in a New Jersey suburb during in the Ice Age, the members of a traditional nuclear family hobnobbing with prehistoric creatures. In the second act, Noah's flood hits Atlantic City during a convention at which all the world's species are in attendance. The finale unfolds in the rubble of a catastrophic war, as people emerge, warily, from their bunkers. The action centers on the Antrobus family, a clan of archetypes dressed up in middle-class clothing. Mr. Antrobus is the innovator and idea man responsible for the wheel, the lever, and the alphabet. His wife is the eternal homemaker, keeping her household running at all costs and protecting her children like a "tigress" (Wilder's word). One child, Henry, originally named Cain, wields a mean slingshot, and is often covered in bloodstains. Orbiting the family is Sabina -- variously, a maid, a concubine, and a beauty contestant, and always a selfish chatterbox in search of a good time.

This isn't the half of it. I can't tell you how often the characters step out of the action to comment and carp over Wilder's scenario. Sabina, often in revolt against the entire enterprise, refuses to deliver key lines and scenes; following an alleged outbreak of food poisoning backstage, the play pauses for a rehearsal featuring a brace of last-minute cast replacements. And let's not forget the newsreels; the gaggle of refugees; the special guest appearances by Homer and the Muses; the passages in Greek, Sanskrit, and Hebrew: and the parade of philosophers quoting from the Bible, Spinoza, and (in this production) bell hooks. It's a delirious carnival of ideas, the product of a schoolmaster with a taste for academic hijinks.

And, at the Vivian Beaumont, director Lileana Blain-Cruz and her designers pile on the effects, adding to the mix a Radio City-sized motion picture screen, a pair of enormous, stunningly designed puppets (a dinosaur and a mammoth); a living room with collapsing walls; a tacky, yet glittering, boardwalk complete with a giant slide; an elaborately staged Charleston; a terrifying storm; and an overgrown, multilevel meadow through which members of the company march in search of a better world. All of this wrapped in a gilded proscenium studded with lightbulbs.

In trying to wrangle this unruly demi-masterpiece, the gifted Blain-Cruz has created a spectacle that no reader of LSA will want to miss. But it remains a mixed blessing: Her production has passages of blazing clarity when not careening toward chaos; it offers moments of high amusement when not feeling overlong and lead-footed; and its production design stuns when not overshadowing the cosmic domestic comedy at its center. It's an enormous folly and if I were you, I wouldn't miss it.

In general, Blain-Cruz's production improves as it goes along; the first act is the weakest, leaving the cast at a disadvantage. A nearly fatal wrong note is struck by Gabby Beans as Sabina; a spoof of all the comic maids ever drafted to deliver the exposition needed to jump-start a play ("Six o'clock and the master not home yet!"), Sabina is tasked with ushering us into the play's singular then-and-now universe. But Beans' frantic delivery and over-the-top manner make for a forbidding challenge. Instead of wooing us with laughter, she leaves us straining to make out her lines. What's the rush? Is Blain-Cruz pushing to keep the running time under three hours? Does she not trust the material? Whatever the thinking, the approach is counterproductive.

Beans improves sharply when she abandons Sabina's persona, becoming the disgusted actress playing her and complaining, "Oh -- why can't we have plays like we used to have -- South Pacific, and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, and Bootcandy!-good entertainment with a message you can take home with you?" (The witty contemporary references are part of a slight script touch-up by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.) But when Sabina turns homewrecker in Act II, slinking around in red spangles and a crown seemingly lifted from the Statue of Liberty, Beans adopts a fake French accent that actively grates. Then again, she settles down beautifully as the sadder-but-not-really-wiser Sabina of Act III. This looks to be a case of an actress doing her director's bidding, not always to her advantage.

If the first act suffers from focus problems -- how could it not, with those puppets and refugees milling about, stealing our attention? -- it does establish Roslyn Ruff as the production's dominant presence. Her Mrs. Antrobus -- who keeps the fires going in a freezing climate, shops for raincoats as the waters rise, and who, in the face of holocaust, hoards enough potatoes and books to keep her family going -- is a figure of unassailable authority. (She is pointedly unimpressed by her husband's many achievements.) Even in her more comic moments -- feigning surprise at being invited to address a convention audience then producing a full set of notes, or defending Henry/Cain's latest crime ("George, he's only four thousand years old") -- she provides the production with a much-needed steadying presence.

As Mr. Antrobus, James Vincent Meredith isn't so lucky, getting lost in the crowds of Act I and not coming into his own until Act III when, war-weary, he finds himself locked in a life-or-death battle with his own son (Julian Robertson, who, like Paige Gilbert as Gladys, the Antrobus daughter, delivers a caricature of childhood for the first two acts). The great Priscilla Lopez has an impressive turn as a sinister, titan-haired fortune teller, murmuring presentiments of doom. Other solid contributions are made by Lindsay Rico as a telegraph messenger with important news to impart and Donnetta Lavinia Grays as the put-upon stage manager, struggling to keep Sabina on track. (For the record, the cast is almost entirely BIPOC, which makes little difference in terms of the play's impact but is interesting to see.)

As previously mentioned, Adam Rigg's sets are stunners -- hang on for the climactic coup de théâtre -- especially as aided by the projections of Hannah Wasileski, especially the amusing animated newsreels that open each act. Yi Zhao's multifaceted lighting ranges from a cold white wash in Act I to plenty of saturation and ballyhoos in Act II and stunning sidelight effects in Act III. Montana Levi Blanco's costumes include 1950s styles in Act I (check out that New Look dress on Mrs. Antrobus), Roaring Twenties chic in Act II (plus zoot suits and a couple of scantily dressed men right out of Broadway Bares), and a Civil War silhouette in Act III. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes reverb and vocal distortion on the actors in addition to an array of effects that include a cataclysmic storm and wartime explosions and sirens.

Like Wilder's play, Blain-Cruz's direction has no shortage of ideas, but it doesn't solve the central problem -- that the members of the Antrobus family are ideas rather than characters and rather outdated ideas as that, representing old-fashioned gender stereotypes. Absent any engaging personalities at its heart, The Skin of Our Teeth inevitably becomes ponderous, a problem exacerbated when the surrounding production is as supersized as it is here. And yet this revival is impossible to dismiss, thanks to its ever-relevant concerns and theatrical panache. Even if it overreaches, it represents Lincoln Center Theatre at its best, offering a first-class production of a major work that would strain the resources of smaller companies. And, as Sabina notes, "The end of this play isn't written yet." Perhaps another, more revelatory, revival is in our future. -- David Barbour

(2 May 2022)

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