You would think that at the tail end of a pandemic Thornton Wilder’s 1943 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth would be the perfect play for our moment. This experimental play which pays tribute to the resilience of the human race offers hope in time of adversity. The experimental nature of the play uses techniques promulgated by James Joyce, Luigi Pirandello and Bertolt Brecht, none of which are so new or unfamiliar anymore: actors addressing the audience directly and stepping out of character, anachronistic events or references, etc. There are allusions to the Old and New Testament, Greek Mythology and Shakespeare. Writing in the middle of World War II, Wilder presciently made use of such themes as the problems of climate change, refugees, dysfunctional marriages, nepotism and political corruption, which remain at the forefront today. Even after 80 years, Wilder’s play seems eternally forward-looking, eternally novel, and continues to be an important piece of American theater.
It has become a recent tradition to update the 1940’s references in this play. The current Lincoln Center Theater revival has obtained the services of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon, Appropriate, War, Neighbors) to make the revisions which allow the play to be more accessible to contemporary audiences: Maya Angelou for poet Longfellow: South Pacific, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike and Bootycandy for Peg o’ My Heart, Smilin’ Thru, and The Bat; social activist Bell Hooks for philosopher Aristotle; etc. The play has been staged with almost entirely a cast of actors of color which gives it a contemporary feel in the age of Black Lives Matter.
Part of the problem with this production is the massive and lavish scenery by Adam Rigg. The stage of Lincoln Center’s the Vivian Beaumont Theater is four stories high and Rigg has used its complete height in all of the scenes. The scenery is impressive. However, he has also designed huge distracting flowered wall paper and too many colorful props for the interior scene, and a life-size roller coaster for the Atlantic City section. One’s eye continues to travel over the set instead of listening and following the actors. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has a penchant for stunning scenery, remembering the glass pool on stage in Red Speedo and the multiple sets in Fefu and Her Friends that needed the audience to get up and walk from one to the other. In those cases, the visuals enhanced the play, rather than got in its way.
The play covers several million years of human history through one family, the Antrobuses of the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey. Act I takes them to an impending Ice Age; Act II presages The Flood from the Boardwalk in Atlantic City; and Act III takes place at the end of a seven year world war, during which time George has been fighting his own son Henry. The Antrobus family of George and Maggie and their children Henry and Gladys remain the same but time passes.
Their maid, Lily Sabina (name taken from both the Biblical Lilith and the historical rape of the Sabine women), addresses the audience directly as a kind of narrator as well as the audience’s advocate, stating their problems with the play in her own grievances. Henry’s name has been changed after the murder of his brother Abel, and George is referred to as a former gardener who left under mysterious circumstances. This “Adam” at one point refers to his wife Maggie of 5,000 years as “Eva.” George goes from being an inventor of the wheel, the alphabet and the multiplication table in Act I to the President of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, in Act II to the general returning home from the wars in Act III.
As Sabina, Gabby Beans, who has worked with director Blain-Cruz at least three times before in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Girls, is different in each act. As the maid who has let the fire go out and let the pet dinosaur and woolly mammoth into the house and is always giving her two week notice, she gives a vaudeville turn. As the Beauty Queen winner of the second act, Beans channels the late Eartha Kitt, while in the third act as a survivor of the war, she is realistic and unsentimental.
Roslyn Ruff’s unflappable Mrs. Antrobus is a rock of pragmatism and commonsense, with a great sense of timing. In a big performance James Vincent Meredith makes George Antrobus a conflicted man of many temperaments. Julian Robertson is better as the young Henry than the soldier home from the war where he is rather one-note. Nor does Paige Gilbert’s Gladys get enough out of a role in which she grows up before us. In her cameo appearance as the Fortune Teller in the Atlantic City scene, Priscilla Lopez is notable predicting the coming of The Flood and other events. Donnetta Lavinia Grays is amusing as the harried stage manager Fitzpatrick. Puppeteers Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., and Sarin Monae West appear to have a good deal of fun manipulating James Ortiz’s impressively life-size dinosaur and woolly mammoth.
Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes alternate between too ornate and spot-on for the three time periods. A choice has been made to make the uniforms in Act III that of the Civil War rather than World War II (as well as some from the American Revolution) which works well with this mainly African American cast. The witty projections by Hannah Wasileski for the News of the World footage that begins each act are an excellent introduction to each new scene. The lighting by Yi Zhao aids in predicting the coming crises as the ice moves forward and the sea and sky darken for the Flood. As noted earlier, Rigg’s sets are imposing in themselves but tend to overshadow the events on stage. The large ensemble in the many crowd scenes has been given excellent direction from Blain–Cruz.
If the play doesn’t entirely work for all viewers, this might be due to the faults of the production or the audience’s limited attention span these days. Innovative director Lileana Blain-Cruz has solved some problems and created new ones. Thornton Wilder’ The Skin of Our Teeth remains a landmark of the American theater while still confusing some audience members with anarchic plot. The title incidentally, a quote from the King James’ version of the Bible, is stated by Lily Sabina when she tells the audience, “Don’t forget a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?” To quote another line from the play, “a truer word was never spoken.”
The Skin of Our Teeth (April 1 – May 29, 2022)
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-300-9761 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one seven minute pause between Acts I and II and one 15 minute intermission between Acts II and III