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? Lily Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth
Thornton Wilder’s ground-breaking 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Skin of Our Teeth, is back in town for the first time since 1998 and is being discovered once again. Some will find it a revelation, others will find it old-hat, and still others will find it confusing. In any case, you will have a strong reaction to this unusual play which broke all the theatrical conventions of its time.
As it is one of the most original American plays ever written and may have introduced Brecht, Pirandello and James Joyce to the New York stage in a home-grown native style, it must be seen. Wilder’s history of the human race covering The Ice Age, The Flood, and World War II proves to be topical all over again with its talk of climate change and refugees almost as though it weren’t 75 years old. Arin Arbus’ production for Theatre for a New Audience with some updating authorized by the Wilder estate is both uneven and innovative but always theatrical and absorbing.
The Skin of Our Teeth breaks most of the realistic theater traditions using experimental techniques, many in the script, some created by the director: actors break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, as well as step in and out of character. Anachronisms abound both current and from the wrong centuries. Characters enter or exit from the audience. This production also includes four songs in appropriate style, four new ones, and a setting of Wilder’s telegram in the first act, by César Alvarez, performed by a live band. The scenery plays tricks, reminding us that it is not real. One problematic decision is to present Acts I and II without an intermission. Wilder knew what he was doing as much time is supposed to pass in the interim.
With the universality that he used in his earlier Our Town, Wilder cleverly and wittily condenses the last million years of human history into one evening using the affairs of one family, the Antrobuses. The first act takes place at their home in Excelsior, New Jersey. His wife, Maggie (a homemaker who invented the apron) and his teenage children Henry and Gladys, along with their maid Lily Sabina (derived from Lilith), who has let the fire go out, await the return of husband and father George, a former gardener and creator of the alphabet and the lever, from a day of inventing at the office. All have noticed how cold it has gotten as ice creeps closer.
Henry (who has uncontrollable rages) reports that his teacher forgot today and called him by his old name of Cain. Wilder’s narrator Lily (who addresses the audience directly) complains when things out of the ordinary happen, threatening to quit, but then changes her mind when things become interesting. When George arrives with food for the family, he has invented the wheel. A huge crowd of refugees arrive to ask for shelter from the cold and the pet dinosaur and mammoth are sent outside. Among the refugees are Moses, Homer and three of the nine Muses.
The humans obviously survive as in Act II which takes place sometime later. We meet up with them again in Atlantic City at the 600,000th annual convention of the great fraternal organization of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, while the animal kingdom has sent two representatives of each specie. The Antrobus family is there as George has been named President. However, Sabina has turned up and has been named Beauty Queen by George. Storm signals turn from bad weather, to storm, to hurricane, to the end of the world. After being vamped by Sabina George decides to leave Maggie and the children. When The Fortune Teller warns him it is time to leave with two of each animal, George is reunited with his family but Sabina coerces her way on to the ship they are using to weather the storm as the wind picks up.
Act III takes place immediately at the end of the last war in the ruins of the Antrobus house in Excelsior. While the men have been away at war, Maggie and Gladys have survived by living in the cellar. Gladys now has a baby. Sabina dressed in the remnants of an army uniform reports that she has seen George downtown and that the war is over. George who has been leading the army against the forces of Henry, the enemy, is now expected home any minute.
Before he can arrive, Henry appears saying he doesn’t belong to anyone and that he hasn’t come back to live as he is going to make his own world. George finds him there and reminds him that you can’t make a world for others “unless you’ve put order in yourself.” George despairs of beginning again unless his books have been saved. Darkness falls and actors representing the Hours of the Night enter and quote Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza and the Bible. The play ends as it began with Sabina worrying about the master coming home safely and sends the audience out into the night to live their lives.
Although always theatrical and with Wilder’s avuncular wisdom, Arbus’ The Skin of Our Teeth seems at times as though the actors are not always on the same page. With a cast of 35, 17 professional actors and 18 artists, musicians and teachers drawn from various backgrounds, the production at the press preview under review at times seemed spotty and uneven. The lead actors all seem to be using different styles which, considering how unusual the play is written, was a bit disconcerting.
Mary Wiseman as Sabina uses a vaudeville style, while David Rasche seems rather off-hand and spontaneous as George Antrobus as though he is meant to improvise. Kecia Lewis’ Maggie Antrobus is a more serious brooding presence. Reynaldo Piniella’s sullen Henry and Kimber Monroe’s needy Gladys make a fine transition from teenagers to young adults. Mary Lou Rosato is a mischievous presence as The Fortune Teller in the Atlantic City sequence, while William Youmans as Mr. Fitzpatrick the Stage Manager is an amusingly serious walk on in the last act.
Riccardo Hernandez’ stylized settings take a bit of getting used to but eventually are seen to be suitable. Cait O’Connor has created a huge array of colorful costumes for the play’s three time periods, as well as the clever puppet designs. The projection design by Peter Nigrini, particularly the News Events of the World (Wilder’s concept) at the beginning of the first two acts, are quite witty. Marcus Doshi’s lighting and Stowe Nelson’s sound add to the play’s otherworldly ambiance.
Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth with its benign belief in the resilience of the human condition is unlike any other American play you are likely to see. Both heavily influenced by earlier European experiments in theater, it is also influential in itself. While Arin Arbus’ production for Theatre for a New Audience at times seems as though it needs tightening up, it is a play that must be experienced in the theater which is why it has never been turned into a Hollywood movie. Go and see for yourself what only the live theater can do to expand your imagination.
The Skin of Our Teeth (through March 19, 2017)
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, between Lafayette Ave. and Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission