A Brontosaurus and a Woolly Mammoth taking up residence among the mid-century modern trappings of a middle-class New Jersey household will now and forever make a theatrical impact – that, at least, hasn’t changed since playwright Thornton Wilder’s days – but so much else has, not least of all the ability of The Skin of Our Teeth, a seminal post-modern avant-garde winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize, to beguile merely on the strength of the post-modern avant-gardeness of it all.
Lincoln Center Theater’s major new revival of the play, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, with additional material by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the tireless efforts of an exemplary cast, does, in fact, afford some newfound vitality for a work so often more admired than loved. An exercise in endurance – for the cast, for the audience – The Skin of Our Teeth long ago passed along the novelty of its time-tripping, allegorical flourishes to subsequent (and, frankly, less laborious) heirs, from Caryl Churchill to Tony Kushner to the Wachowskis, so any attempt to meet and rise above the play’s inherent challenges would seem to require a vision, maybe a ruthlessness and certainly a firm grasp of the play’s continued reason for being.
Blain-Cruz does in fact display occasional moments of just those things, and so this Skin of Our Teeth, in fleeting sequences, lifts itself from the play’s traditional slog.
With a Black cast, loving references to bell hooks and allusions to youthful rage that seem as ferociously essential as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Blain-Cruz reshapes Wilder’s universe just enough to encompass the Black experience, placing it firmly within the sweep of Wilder’s epoch-spanning tragicomic history of humanity.
As always, The Skin of Our Teeth opens with Sabina (Gabby Beans, terrifically funny especially when breaking character to reveal yet another character beneath), maid to the upwardly mobile Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey. Sabina nervously tidies the attractive house while catching us all up on the who’s who and what’s what – Mr. Antribus (James Vincent Meredith) has been very busy at the office of late, consumed as he is with inventing the wheel, while Mrs. Antribus (Roslyn Ruff) fusses protectively over the kids, little Gladys (Paige Gilbert) who is picking up some bad lipstick habits from the girls at school and young Henry (Julian Robertson) who just can’t keep his hands off rocks and other boys’ skulls any more than he can outrun the real name – Cain.
And on top of everything, the Ice Age is heading toward New Jersey, and not even the friendly
Bronto who lumbers around the living room – a marvelous and massive hand-operated puppet designed by James Ortiz – or the orange mammoth who romps like a puppy are likely to survive.
And so they don’t. Come Act II, when the action and the Antrobus Family finds itself on the boardwalk of Atlantic City during what appears to be both the 1920s and the Biblical Flood, the mammoth and the dinosaur will not be among the chosen two-by-twos to take refuge on that big boat just off the Jersey Shore. Violent Henry is still causing trouble, Sabina now calls herself Lily (as in Lilith, the eternal temptress) and Mrs. Antrobus has all but had it with her pathetic excuse for a husband, but, hey, family’s family, and that storm is coming hard.
When Skin finally arrives at Act II, the Antrobuses have been torn asunder by war – the blue and gray uniforms and antebellum dresses leave no doubt which war – and the long-in-coming, but never resolving, conflicts between father and son, husband and wife, mother and daughter, reach both a zenith and, Wilder suggests, a sort of equilibrium that can only exist in forgiveness. The next calamity is always in the offing, so stop squabbling.
Except of course that Wilder couldn’t have imagined nuclear holocaust or existential climate change, so The Skin of Our Teeth is always going to feel a bit, well, quaint in its ancient disasters and feel-good proposals. As theater, the Lincoln Center staging makes impressive use of the puppetry and the projections of hurricanes and a gorgeous evocation of the Atlantic City boardwalk as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah – which, by the way, looks like terrific fun, with loads of cool people, not least the all-knowing fortune teller played, in a relatively brief but wonderfully commanding performance, by the great stage star Priscilla Lopez. In a lovely final image, human wanderers follow the sun through distant fields. Here’s hoping they get where they are going – it’s been a long hike.
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