|A CurtainUp Review
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Les Gutman
The earth's getting so silly no wonder the sun turns cold. --Mrs. Antrobus
When, as a boy, I first saw The Skin of Our Teeth, I thought it was big and wonderful. Little did I know. Now that I'm grown (or so I pretend), I know just how expansive, and wonderful, it really is. Performed outdoors -- a terrific idea -- it is boundless and ought to explode with energy.
Irene Lewis has given the Antrobus saga a staging that alternately grabs and releases the audience (even if it doesn't quite explode). Other approaches are probably more pleasing, but I doubt they are better suited to Thornton Wilder's manic notion of the human experience. To follow the arc of The Skin of Our Teeth is to follow nuclear particles flying around in a reactor. To Wilder, time lacks relativity: minutes and millenia are virtually interchangeable.
In Wilder's seeming chaos, as untethered as time is, place is quite rooted. Except for its frequent excursions literally into the "here and now" (Wilder breaks down the fourth wall in ways that were original 56 years ago and still seem slightly outrageous), the action remains in New Jersey. Other concepts also withstand the test of time: his notions of the family, good and evil, tragedy and salvation, and so on. As out-of-control as it is made to appear on some levels, The Skin of Our Teeth is actually quite finely tuned and carefully crafted. This production starts to falter whenever it loses sight of this fact.
The show gets off to a precarious start with two "artistic" miscalculations. The first is evident upon entering the Delacorte: John Conklin's hideous "pea green" geometric abstraction of a set. It fights with the unique natural environment of Central Park, sapping the setting of much of its potential. It also robs Excelsior, N.J. of its most important characteristic, its normalcy, creating instead diverting images based on Levittownesque Monopoly houses (a motif that persists with the installation of a huge red Monopoly hotel in Act II, which is set in Atlantic City). Together with a metal house frame that spends most of the show in the way, it is a perfect example of a set that attracts attention for its own sake rather than complementing its client as it should. The second miscue is not quite so egregious, a pre-Act I pas de deux, repeated as an interlude between Acts II and III, presumably to evoke period, but here both unnecessary and wrong.
Once we survive these interruptions, Act I, in which the Antrobus family confronts the dawn of the Ice Age, proceeds smoothly and effectively. We first meet, in short order, the character of Sabina, the maid, and the actress Kristen Johnston who plays her. Great liberties have been taken in modernizing Johnston's "in-front-of-the-fourth-wall" shtick, but it is both apt and no doubt consistent with Wilder's intent. (An actress kibbitzing with an audience in 1940's vernacular would certainly fail to achieve the desired effect.) Johnston offers an interesting and fresh reading of her character (and, I suppose, herself), more perplexed than in control.
We next meet Mrs. Antrobus (Frances Conroy), wife, mother and inventor of the apron. The relationship between the two women is a competitive one, but the production history of the play reveals that the outcome need not always be the same. In the 1942 original, Tallulah Bankhead's Sabina controlled the stage against Florence Eldridge, as one would expect, but imagine how much different things would have been in the 1955 Paris production with Mary Martin as Sabina and Helen Hayes as Mrs. Antrobus. The 1998 battle is quite well matched. Conroy yields no ground to Johnston. She fights for her laughs as aggressively as she fights for her family. I'm almost inclined to say this inventor of the apron wins.
The high profile arrival of the even higher (and wider) profiled John Goodman as Mr. Antrobus reveals another appropriate but slightling unsettling character interpretation. Although the hype (both onstage and off) might suggest a boisterous man, Goodman is far more restrained and even perhaps contemplative, reflecting a man of science and letters. (He was, after all, the inventor of both the wheel and the alphabet.) He does not channel Fred Flintstone (a film role for which he is known and that shares some obvious parallels).
Both of the Antrobus children are exceptionally well played. Gladys (Brienen Bryant) has the less showy role, but her important sensitivities and reactions are strongly conveyed. Henry (John Ortiz), the emissary of the devil on earth formerly known as Cain, has a broad opportunity to perform and here does so with élan. Ortiz is as emotional as he is unpredictable; his is the kind of performance that should garner profile-nudging attention.
The end of Act I, with Sabina's pleas for the audience to pass up its chairs to "save the human race" against the background of Mrs. Antrobus reciting the opening passages of the Bible, aided by excellent sound effects, creates a sense of emotion-filled excitement (notwithstanding a hokey "glacier" that is not worthy of a high school skit). This excitement, strangely, did not reëmerge in Act II, with its carnival atmosphere, fortune teller (Novella Nelson) and impending floods. The highlight of the second act is Frances Conroy's memorable rendition of Mrs. Antrobus's convention speech which courses from the mundane ("The tomato is edible") to the universal ("Save the Family"). The post-war final act again seems to find the emotional intensity that Wilder anticipated although the "hours of the day" scene is so oddly staged (even with a preposterous stab at political correctness in the form of a sign language version of Aristotle) that the play ends on an anemic note.
This is not the Skin of my dreams, but it is certainly not a nightmare either. It remains a play of broad themes, quaintly propounded. Good stuff for contemplation on (very) warm starry nights.