A startling moment occurs near the beginning of Lincoln Center’s wonderfully over-the-top production of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Thornton Wilder’s weird play about a modern-day American family in suburban New Jersey who live through the Ice Age, Noah-era floods, and the Napoleonic wars.
Before we meet the Antrobus family in person, we meet their cheeky maid, Sabina (Gabby Beans, making an auspicious Broadway debut), who breaks the fourth wall, to tell us “I hate this play and every word in it….why can’t we have plays like we used to have—South Pacific, and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, and Bootycandy!—good entertainment with a message you can take home with you?”
Now, some theatergoers might be startled to hear her mention those last two titles, considering that they didn’t exist until decades after Wilder ‘s death. But the playbill explains that playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written “additional material,” and this is obviously one example.
But that’s not what startled me; it’s what Sabina says next:
“I took this hateful job because I had to. For two years I’ve sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day, waiting for the theater to return to what it used to be.”
Two years waiting for theater to return? This could easily have been one of Jacobs-Jenkins’ updates, but it isn’t. It’s in the original script.
Could the playwright, who began writing the play shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, have been referring to the U.S. entry into World War II? But why then “two years”? Pearl Harbor was only one year before “The Skin of Our Teeth” debuted on Broadway, on November 18, 1942, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina, and featuring a huge cast that included Frederic March, Montgomery Clift, and the then-13-year-old “Dickie” Van Patten.
And there is another startlingly relevant moment in Act 3, a stage manager steps forward to announce that several members of the company have been struck by illness — again, in the original script.
These are relatively quiet moments in a busy, often noisy, and very long play, but it felt like a direct otherworldly message that this production could not be better timed. We’ve been living through apocalyptic-level catastrophes – the pandemic, disasters provoked by climate change, war…and, yes, almost two years without in-person theater. And we’ve survived, if only by the skin of our teeth (an expression that has its origins in the Book of Job, one of the many allusions in the play to the Bible.)
So “The Skin of Our Teeth” is a timely play. It is also an acclaimed play: It won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s an influential play; its innovative theatrical tricks and techniques were echoed in later works by dramatists as disparate and distinct as Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett and Caryl Churchill; it is arguably a prime example of absurdist theater created ten years before The Theater of the Absurd. It’s an important play. But the main reason to see the new Broadway revival of it is because it’s fun.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has assembled a terrific design team, most of whom are making spectacular Broadway debuts. These include:
Set designer Adam Rigg, who creates a convincing suburban home during an encroaching Ice Age, then the Atlantic City boardwalk complete with rollercoaster and neon signs (one of which becomes cleverly R-rated) right before The Great Flood, then a burnt out suburban home after the devastating war
Projection designer Hannah Wasileski, who begins each of the three acts with elaborate newsreel like “News Events of the World” videos that are a fit visual accompaniment to the loopy narration
James Ortiz, who designs and directs the life-sized dinosaur and woolly mammoth in Act 1. It would do these extinct species a disservice to call them mere puppets. When the dinosaur slinks into the Antrobus household and says “It’s cold,” your heart will melt.
The design helps establish the rich, bizarre juxtapositions of the play, between the everyday and the cosmic, between playfulness and resilience.
As Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, a married couple celebrating their 5,000-year anniversary, James Vincent Meredith and the always-reliable Roslyn Ruff (whom I last saw killing it in another Pulitzer-winner, Fairview), lead a huge, primarily Black cast in effectively navigating the play’s balance between the comic, cosmic, tragic and chaotic.
This can be dizzying. In the first act, which is by far the most entertaining, Mr. Antrobus has spent a busy day at the office, inventing the wheel and the alphabet, and phones her to give advice about the advancing cold. “Don’t worry the children about the cold, just keep them warm; burn everything except Shakespeare.” Later in the act, they must chase out their pet dinosaur and mammoth, to make room for the swarm of refugees (!) crowding the doorframe into the house, in hopes of escaping the encroaching cold.
There are a handful of tweaks in the script to establish that the characters embody the Black experience: The Antrobus daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert) wants to read her father the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou. In that fourth wall-breaking moment, the actress (portrayed by Beans) who is portraying Sabina is given a first name of Latesha, and boasts of having been in every play by August Wilson (as a way to complain of what a letdown it is to be in this play by Wilder.) There is a quote from bell hooks. But there is otherwise little difference from the Everyman suburban family of past productions of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which is perhaps the point.
The Skin of Our Teeth
Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through May 29, 2022
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one brief pause and one intermission
Tickets: $49-$225 (Lottery: $36)
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz,
Sets by Adam Rigg, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting by Yi Zhao, sound by Palmer Hefferan, and projections by Hannah Wasileski,
Cast: Eunice Bae, Gabby Beans, Terry Bell, Ritisha Chakraborty, William DeMeritt, Jeremy Gallardo, Paige Gilbert, Avery Glymph, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Noor Hamdi, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Maya Jackson, Anaseini Katoa, Cameron Keitt, Megan Lomax, Kathiamarice Lopez, Priscilla Lopez, James Vincent Meredith, Lindsay Rico, Julian Robertson, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Roslyn Ruff, Julyana Soelistyo, Phillip Taratula, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker, Jr., Adrienne Wells and Sarin Monae West.