‘The Skin Of Our Teeth’ Is Crazy, Deep, And Stars Broadway’s Coolest Dinosaur
Sometimes more is more, and proudly. There’s nothing else on Broadway this season like the multi-sensory bath that is Thornton Wilder’s Lincoln Center Theater production The skin of our teeth (opening tonight May 29), directed with epic freewheeling malice by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
This production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a comedy first produced on stage in 1942, coincides with the 125th anniversary of Wilder’s birth (he died in 1975), and is so rarely performed that many of his quirks – the room within a room, characters that speak to us as actors representing them, dinosaurs to cheer for – seem like modern additions. But Wilder wrote this crazy marriage of absurdity, philosophy and apocalypse as it is spoken. Some additional material in this production comes from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
The Antrobus family lives in a 5,000-year history, which means the Ice Age is raging outside their turn-of-the-century home in the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey. A huge dinosaur and a woolly mammoth occupy the house (the superb creations of James Ortiz), chewing on the plants and inviting to pat their heads. Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr. and Sarin Monae West are the puppeteers responsible for the stage movements of these creations. The dinosaur is wonderful and the mammoth will bring back the best fragglerock memories.
It’s Sabina, the Antrobus’ maid (Gabby Beans, maniacally fierce and funny, and deserving of the nomination), who soon makes it clear that as the actress who plays her, she’s not buying any of this stuff. unfolding. before our eyes. This isn’t the first time Sabina has stepped out of the action as her own portrait painter, or the action itself ceases, as we’re drawn into a room that, like the setting, seems precarious at best. In character, she cleans up and worries about the safe arrival of patriarch George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith) home. The needy flock to their homes, including people claiming to be Moses and Homer.
In the second act of we are on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, so beautifully immediate and colorful you can almost smell the salt water taffy, before the sky darkens and we await the approach of a terrifying sounding storm, culminating in what appears to be the formation of Noah’s Ark.
In the latter part of the play, he is back in the living room of the Antrobus family home, now a burned and destroyed shell after the end of a seven-year war. Unfortunately, the dinosaur and the mammoth are only there for one act. This critic wished in vain for their return. (Speaking of time travel, the original 1942 cast included Montgomery Clift and Tallulah Bankhead, if anyone wants to teleport with me back then.)
At Lincoln Center, Roslyn Ruff plays matriarch Maggie Antrobus as a stylish, absent-minded hostess (the excellent costumes are by Montana Levi Blanco), who refuses to accept any chaos that erupts around her. George is a caring patriarch, but also someone to be feared and a potentially adulterous leader of the “ancient and honorable order of mammals, human subdivision”, of which he is to be sworn in as president. Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and Henry (Julian Robertson) are trapped between childhood and adulthood, until at last they are one almost a parent, and the other a troubled war victim. determined to kill their father. (We learn earlier that Henry was called Cain and killed his brother; and perhaps George and Maggie are meant to be Adam and Eve, the world’s ur-parents traveling through his time.)
In the Boardwalk section, Sabina transforms from a hysterical, protective housekeeper to a disguised beauty queen bent on destroying the Antrobus marriage, before her third-act transformation into a sober storyteller and restorer of unity. family.
The play similarly ricochets between riotous comedy and deep drama – the war-scarred third act has nowhere to go but down. But even near the end, the play breaks early in its establishment of gloom to introduce us to new cast members, as others are said to have contracted what appears to be food poisoning. Wilder likes to take a pin to his own seriousness.
We don’t know why certain things are happening in the play. The three parameters are lost in their own scopes and definitions of time. But the play repeatedly returns to the idea that, regardless of the era in which we find ourselves, the end of the world is either near, or experienced, or has just been survived – and then?
It is significant that the Antrobus family is black, as Blain-Cruz told the New York Times“Placing the question of human survival on a black family only raises the stakes so much, because we have felt that insecurity for so long, and we still feel it today. It’s not, ‘Am I going to make it?’ It’s literally, “Will we survive under all this endless pressure?” It feels really powerful for this moment – that this family can hold these feelings and this pain in such a specific way that it becomes universal again as we all question our survival.
Beans-as-Sabina makes it clear that she finds what she’s been asked to do utterly absurd. Of course, no one lives 5,000 years. Of course, a family living in 20th century America can’t also live in the Ice Age with dinosaurs roaming around the house. But still, even without the opt-outs offered to us by Sabina/Beans, we lean into the underlying absurdity and depth.
Adam Riggs’ design is the most stunning of this Broadway season. The mid-century house is self-destructing, the boardwalk is beautiful and includes a functional and really fun slide, and then finally, a sort of jungle of plants comes to dominate the post-war house.
As Blain-Cruz and company provide a feast for the mind and the eye, philosophically the piece densifies and enriches over its three hours. We see the ravages of war on a global scale and betray it within a family. We see ruin and hedonism. There is temptation and exhaustion. We try to maintain order and anarchy. And there is nature, always there – frozen, in bloom, wild, soiled and yet as persistent as the age-resistant family.
Ms. Antrobus delivers a powerful speech on safeguarding family life (which to modern ears sounds like the preamble to a manifesto for bigotry), and it is striking that over the course of 5,000 years, the he family unit, scratched and battered, endures all the ravages of every age. When a fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) appears on the boardwalk, she’s not the parody prophetess of so many other plays and movies, but someone worn down by the nonsense of humans asking her for advice.
This piece is a blizzard of words and images, and as Sabina tells us throughout, get it or don’t get it what you want. But, just as the play is a maelstrom, so is the story of the world it sketches. The Antrobus survive everything, transgressing all the laws of nature and biology – and so, seems to say Wilder, the best of their qualities (loyalty, courage, just doing and carrying on) may well be those that support us. That, and also having a dinosaur as a pet.