|THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH|
“Come for the spectacle, stay for the message.” Or is that “Come for the message, stay for the spectacle.” Either (imaginary) slogan snugly fits director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s physically, intellectually, and emotionally impressive production of Thornton Wilder’s rarely performed, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Skin of Our Teeth,” now being unveiled by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont.
Eight decades after its premiere, the “who, what and where” of Wilder’s non-linear three-act drama is still likely perplex to many audience members. How can George and Maggie Antrobus (played sturdily by James Vincent Meredith and Roslyn Ruff) actually be 5,000 years old? Why do they put up with their high-strung maid Lily Sabina (a deliciously funny Gabby Beans, often directly channeling Eartha Kitt)? And what’s all this business about an ice age, a world-ending deluge -- as predicted by a sexy, world-weary fortune teller (a delicious Priscilla Lopez) -- and a lengthy war that threatens to destroy the family once and for all. And why does it all take place in New Jersey?
The short answer is that the play is undeniably an allegory, complete with many Biblical allusions (for example, it’s made clear that the Antrobus’ angry surviving son Henry, played by Julian Robertson, is brother-killer Cain). Audiences too often fear the play is going over their heads – and certain references undoubtedly will no matter how well-educated you may be – but you don’t need to understand every word or symbol for the work to hit home. (The gifted playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has slightly updated the text, mostly to include some more topical references.)
Indeed, what Wilder – and Blain-Cruz -- really wants us to do is listen to the play’s overall message, which sadly proves as relevant today – if not moreso – as it did during World War II. In the face of global catastrophe (i.e. Covid), how do we go on even as so many others leave us? Is it not the duty of those who survive to try to reinvent not only themselves, but the world? Do we fight our baser impulses and rise above temptation, or do we, as Eve reportedly did, just take a bite of the apple and let the proverbial chips fall where they may?
Listening to Wilder’s words or his message can sometimes be a bit challenging here due to the show’s remarkable physical production. Set designer Adam Rigg (one of this season’s MVPs) has put together three incredibly remarkable sets for each scene, none more breathtaking than his colorful, neon-filled Atlantic City boardwalk. Montano Levi Blanco’s costumes are marvelously evocative of each time period (again, with his ultra-sexy 1920s ensemble making the most visual impact). And whoever is responsible for the life-sized (human-filled) dinosaur and mammoth that romp around the Antrobus’ living room in the first act probably deserves his or her own Tony Award.
Big animals. Big sets. Big questions. “The Skin of Our Teeth” gives us plenty to chew on – and leaves some of us hungry for even more.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Eunice Bae, Gabby Beans, Terry Bell, Ritisha Chakraborty, William DeMeritt, Jeremy Gallardo, Paige Gilbert, Avery Glymph, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Maya Loren 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, Sarin Monae West
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023