The Broadway Review: LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth
Up a little further north than the other traditional Broadway houses, the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater is unleashing its wild creative juices on an old and abstract Thornton Wilder play called The Skin of Our Teeth, and the amazing thing about this whole experience, beyond its breathtaking design aesthetic, is, in fact, its theatrical history. This was something I looked up quite hastily during the first of two intermissions (over its three-hour running time) because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This is no ordinary play. It is filled with grand themes and bizarre twists that make no logical sense beyond its metaphors and symbols, yet it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama after opening at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway on November 18, 1942, and was considered quite the commercial success, back in the day. I can understand its intellectual celebration, but that financial success, well, after watching it play out on that wide Lincoln Center Theater stage, I am just so surprised by what the audiences took in back in its day.
It’s a play that today feels like an artifact that only a well-funded theater such as Lincoln Center could pull off and invest in it for the overall good of our theatrical community and its history, and it does, in a way, do just that. The production is exemplary, looking like a well-polished piece of history, redesigned for our intellectual consumption and examination, but one that feels somewhat more like a history lesson than a solid entertaining night at the theatre. Now, I am all for a well-thought-out night of Shakespeare or Shaw, as long as it still finds the emotional thread to our heart and soul, but if it misses that mark and becomes something more akin to a lesson in history, then that, I must say, is a pill that is a bit harder to swallow.
“That’s all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.” So says Sabina, who both begins and ends this fantastically bizarre slide of a play. Portrayed most magnificently by Gabby Beans (ATC’s Anatomy of a Suicide), she, as the family’s maid in the first and third acts, and as a beauty queen temptress in the second, finds her way to talk directly to us, sorting through the apocalyptic threats to the wacky antics that soon follow. I wish I could say that I found the whole thing intellectually stimulating, even after reading during intermission about the symbols and metaphors that live inside the text, but I can’t really do that. The history that I did unearth did give the play some context and a framework to engage in, and although I was never completely bored or disengaged, I can’t say that I was enthralled. Intrigued? Yes, but captivated? No, not really.
This is not to say that this production isn’t a beautifully articulated and constructed piece of theatre. The actors all do their due diligence within the whimsical orchestration, delivering their formulations with a force that is determined and convincing. But the real star of the production is the design team itself. A wide-eyed inventive Adam Rigg (Public’s Cullud Wattah) has created a wonderland of mammoth proportions, utilizing the expansive stage for this play’s contentment as well as its enlightenment. He, along with the lighting designer Yizhao (LCT’s Greater Clements), sound designer Palmer Hefferan (Broadway’s Grand Horizons), and the costume designer Montana Levi Blanco (Broadway’s A Strange Loop), have all supersized the space, creating visuals that elevate and broaden the horizons displayed, all the while giving our eyes something to be marveled at. It’s gigantically spectacular, delivering dynamic vistas to take in the metaphors presented. Even after the conceptualization has made its point, sadly, quite early on in this three-hour extravaganza, the environments where these talented actors make their case for this play’s relevance continue to entertain and enlighten way beyond the moment when Wilder’s wild ideals have come and gone from our consciousness.
The phrase, “The Skin of Our Teeth” supposedly comes from the King James Bible, Job 19:20, which reads: “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” And although that should make the whole proceedings seem more vibrant and meaningful, I can’t say that I genuinely got into these three somewhat entertaining and funny acts about the Antrobus family with any emotional urgency, as they attempt to survive the history of catastrophes and wars that wage just outside their home. It feels like the play should be profound, but as it slips in and around the scientific and biblical constructs, The Skin of Our Teeth starts to feel more and more remote, as if we are the ones looking to escape with just that.
With the play expanded by the contributions of playwright Branden Jacobs Jenkins (War), the energetic and determined director, Lileana Blain-Cruz (LCT’s Pipeline), finds a way to dutifully unpack each presentation with an amusingly playful arrangement. It is a fascinating journey she takes on, prefacing each segment with a “News of the World” black and white cinematic moment that is enlightening and forward-thinking. The film and the three very different scenarios do their best to give a framework to Wilder’s thematic ideology and a direction to place it somewhere inside our conscious understanding. I’m not convinced that I needed that much time and space to understand the symbolic concept, but if you’re going to present this play to the modern world, I guess this is pretty much the best packaging one could ever hope for.
The same family of characters tries their best to live beyond the oncoming disasters plaguing their timeless existence. It all starts with an advancing ice age that threatens to bring destruction to the 20th Century New Jersey suburban home where a husband and a wife, played strongly by James Vincent Meredith (Broadway’s Superior Donuts) and Roslyn Ruff (Broadway’s Fences) attempt to save themselves and those around them, including their two (out of three) children; Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and Henry (Julian Robertson), and their maid, Sabina. The third child, a son named Abel, has a Biblical connection that I will leave you to sort out. It is presented enough that the thread is basically visible to the audience, mirroring the biblical story in which Adam’s son murders his brother after God favors Abel over Cain, implying that George Antrobus is in fact Adam, and his wife, Eve. What that really means beyond its intellectual playfulness, I wasn’t Abel to put those pieces together.
Let us not forget about the dinosaurs that are brought in from the cold so they might avoid becoming extinct – thanks to some pretty spectacular work from puppet master, James Ortiz (Public’s Hercules). The weirdness of that time-framed amalgam is followed by a Second Act convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals on a playful, busy boardwalk in Atlantic City that is currently under a three-coined storm watch. A slide entertains the assortment of characters that wander about, most of which are ignoring the floodwaters that gather and the alarm bells that are going off. All this boardwalk madness ushers forth a Third Act that is more of a post-destruction construct, rather than one of impending doom like the first two. This time around the survival circus, the same family emerges from an underground shelter post-war to see if their old suburban world can be rebuilt. And if the play itself can survive a stage manager’s impromptu interruption. I’m not so sure.
I must admit outright that by the time the third act got underway, I had long lost the intense interest in trying to unravel the intersections of ideas and conceptualizations that Wilder intended with his strange pretentious brand of intellectualism. Beans does manage to turn out a captivating performance, even though the beginning takes a bit of readjustment in our senses and theatrical expectations. She dutifully finds the delicate balance between abstractionism and engaging comedy, much like the rest of the large cast does to maybe a lesser degree, discovering their own way of grounding the absurd into carefully crafted points of convincing authority.
Sabina states almost pleadingly, “That’s all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.” “Don’t forget that 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?” The pieces of this puzzle are intuitively put together quite quickly; the importance and consistency of family, and that there are always peaceful moments in our world history that will inevitably be followed and plagued by disaster and destruction, both natural and man-made. We see it in our news cycle right now, unfortunately; plagues and wars, yet we all (hopefully) look into our future with optimism, trying to envision a day when things won’t appear to be so dark. I remember having somewhat the same reaction to his much more digestible Our Town, particularly when I saw that last production directed by David Cromer at Barrow Street Theatre a number of years ago (February 26, 2009 – Sept. 12, 2010). It was infused with a universal message, that the simplest day, filled with the ordinary, is in fact the most beautiful and striking. Our Town asks us, most thoughtfully; do any of us truly understand and see the sheer beauty inside every minute while we actually live it? “No,” says that play’s narrator, “The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.” The Skin of Our Teeth takes it to a whole other level, shifting the sweet smell of connectivity and emotional truth far away from our grasp, leaving us with a more self-indulgent narrative that only confuses (me) more than it ever engages.