Thornton Wilder is best remembered as the author of Our Town and The Matchmaker, the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly! But his third great play, The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Elia Kazan in 1943, won the Pulitzer Prize, yet the tragicomedy is more spoken about than seen, perhaps because its demands are formidable. Wilder, a great experimentalist, uses every trick in the book to chart the survival of mankind, in the persons of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, N.J., through the Ice Age, the Flood, untold wars and starving refugees.
Decades before Noises Off, The Skin of Our Teeth employed meta-theater: as the set collapses, backstage personnel make awkward onstage appearances, and actors step out of character. “I hate this play,” says Sabina, the maid/narrator—or rather Mary Wiseman, the actress playing Sabina, stepping out of her role. Huge animals played by actors appear as a mammoth and a dinosaur, and the cast at times traipses through the aisles. Done well, it can be thrilling fun.
Yet its reputation is shaky. George Jean Nathan was outright dismissive: “This play once again reinforces the conviction that Thornton Wilder remains merely a talented dilettante.” Tyrone Guthrie's response was more measured: “One admires the dazzling virtuosity, laughs at the jokes, but the emotional aspects of the theme get jostled out of the picture,” he wrote. “One cannot see the wood for the trees.”
To her credit, director Arin Arbus saw that the current era of turmoil made The Skin of Our Teeth ripe for revisiting. Unfortunately, her production adds much more wood to the trees: four additional songs, specially written by César Alvarez, and a fascination with every piece of stage machinery at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
The production starts unpromisingly: rather than a professional announcer talking about slide projections of “the news of the day,” an unprepossessing Polonsky “staffer” delivers the introduction to George Antrobus and his discovery of the wheel. Actress Storm Thomas lacks the confidence and resonance of a newsreel announcer and the snap of a forceful personality to thrust us into the story of the Antrobus family, and from this tepid beginning things just trundle along.
Mrs. Antrobus is introduced just as Wiseman’s toothsome Lily Sabina (a combination of Lilith and the Sabine women, and a threat to any marriage) lets the fire go out—it’s the fire, in the middle of an Ice Age—and Kecia Lewis’s harsh reaction suggests she’s playing Miss Hannigan in Annie rather than the mother of mankind. The part needs some forbearance and comic sensibility that it doesn’t get here: it’s no accident that the most successful productions had expert comediennes in the part: Kristine Nielsen in Darko Tresnjak’s memorable 2001 production in Williamstown, Mass., and Estelle Parsons in Arthur Penn’s legendary 1967 production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (with Anne Bancroft as Sabina).
Wilder’s playwriting tricks are given distracting “help” under Arbus’s direction. The text has a 12-year-old messenger boy arriving with a telegram, and before he leaves he announces he has a wife and two sons. That’s plenty for an audience to chew on, but Arbus muddles the passage by casting a young woman in a Messenger’s uniform who is utterly unconvincing as a male, and incorporates a song setting by Alvarez that slows things down. Nor is it sufficient for Sabina to wield a feather duster for her housework—she has to sweep a rocking chair with a broom!
Rather than guffaws, the result adds layers of puzzlement that undermine the genuine humor. A line reporting the Ice Age—“They’re burning pianos in Hartford”—is funny on the page; it gets scarcely a titter in the performance. The songs by Alvarez are pleasant, but they slow things down, and the staging of the boardwalk scenes, with men in boaters and plaid jackets, is particularly confusing. Nor do Cait O’Connor’s bright vaudevillian costumes lift one’s spirits much. Sabina has a flouncy frock that has puffy shoulders with polka dots—but the colors are different on each shoulder. It’s like Meet Me in St. Louis meets Cirque du Soleil.
Amid the mishmash of elements, David Rasche as Antrobus appears lost, and Wiseman’s Sabina, the star part, pales. It may be that even in a more straightforward rendering, one needs the charisma of a Fredric March to put over the character. Certainly, one longs for something more, even if not necessarily March or Tallulah Bankhead as Mr. Antrobus and Sabina. Kudos to Arbus for taking it on, but her production isn’t one that would change the minds of Tyrone Guthrie or George Jean Nathan.
Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth plays at Theater for a New Audience (Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn), through March 19. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (except March 12); matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on March 19. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.tfana.org.