Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that change is the only constant of life. In “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Thornton Wilder argues that tragedy is another. His sweeping comedy, now resurrected on Broadway for Lincoln Center Theater, tasks itself with covering 5,000 years of human disaster in three hours. The primary categories of catastrophe? Ice Age, flood and war. In navigating these traumas, Wilder reminds audiences that suffering is circular. Plays can hopscotch across eras. Life is gloriously messy. And chaos will outlive us all, so why not laugh about it?
Every plot summary of “The Skin of Our Teeth” fails. The character Mr. Antrobus (played here by James Vincent Meredith), meant to represent the allegorical everyman, is an inventor. Mrs. Antrobus (Roslyn Ruff), a pillar of family values, dedicates her life to their children: Gladys (Paige Gilbert), a people pleaser, a bit promiscuous; and Henry (Julian Robertson), pugnacious and misunderstood. But none of them are real; these are characters being played by fictional actors in a meta-theatrical recounting of history. Dogs freeze to sidewalks. A dinosaur and a woolly mammoth seek domestic refuge like stray cats. Homer and Moses sing “Jingle Bells.” Oh, and speaking of Moses, the Book of Genesis and its VIPs (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel) are alluded to in some way. Are you keeping up? Neither am I.
As an absurdist meditation on resilience, “The Skin of Our Teeth” (which premiered on Broadway in 1942) is still relevant today, but its larger life lessons hardly seem revolutionary. We’ve already spent the past two years in a deeply intimate relationship with endurance. Surely, we will have to again. My advice? Surrender to the creativity of “Skin” which, in 2022, is best viewed as a theatrical vessel for the many great talents currently working in American theater. A play this long and zany would have a harder time holding attention if not for the 28 cast members’ unrelenting commitment to crazy. Gabby Beans, in particular, as the Antrobuses’ high-octane housemaid Sabina, gives the best comedic performance I’ve seen all year. Almost Disney-like in her zealousness, Beans adopts the voice of Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove” and spritelyness of Edna Mode from “The Incredibles,” then drops the act to assure us that she, too, is confused: “Don’t take this play serious. The world’s not coming to an end. You know it’s not. People exaggerate!”
Absurdity aside, there is still that obvious connection between the anxieties of historic communities (natural disaster, refugee crises, war) and those of today — doubly so as you stare at a cast of Black Antrobuses. This casting choice, spearheaded by director Lileana Blain-Cruz, opens the play up to deeper interpretation. Lines like “Every night this same anxiety as to whether Mr. Antrobus will get home safely,” and “Mr. Antrobus is a very fine man, an excellent husband and father…every muscle goes tight every time he passes a policeman,” singe the heart a bit more. Characterizations like Mrs. Antrobus’ steely strength and Henry’s inclination to violence inch further into trope territory.
Fortunately, the comedy is Blacker too with nods to August Wilson, Drake, Stevie Wonder and more. Contemporary additions like these are credited to playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”), who collaborated with Blain-Cruz on the revival. Also aiding her expert direction is a knockout team of designers. Adam Rigg’s set transforms the Vivian Beaumont Theater from lavish aquamarine living room to dazzling Atlantic City boardwalk, back to that same living room, now ravaged by war by Act 3. Costumes (Montana Levi Blanco), sound (Palmer Hefferan), projections (Hannah Wasileski) and lighting (Yi Zhao) are Vaudevillian and fun. The elements meld together, especially in the avalanche and hurricane scenes, stimulating all of your senses like a 4D park attraction. The music that plays before the production and throughout — Doja Cat, Normani and an iconic use of Chloë’s pop-trap bop “Have Mercy” — is a surprising delight. It was not until the final song, Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know,” in which the songstress croons, “Time to save the world. Where in the world is it all the time?” that I started to think about the relation these songs might have to Wilder’s words, but in keeping with Sabina’s advice, I opted not to take it all too literally.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” has skin in the game as one of the most groundbreaking plays in American history. It demands you take an unserious look at the most serious threats to our survival. While all of that existential meaning and non-meaning can send your brain on a roller-coaster ride — the morning after seeing the show I felt hungover — the exceptionality of this Broadway production makes it well worth the price of admission.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on April 25, 2022.
Review Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Creative: Written by Thornton Wilder; With Additional Material By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz; Scenic Design by Adam Rigg; Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Design by Yi Zhao; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Projection Design by Hannah Wasileski; Puppet Design/Direction: James Ortiz.
Producer: Lincoln Center Theater.
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.