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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Skin Of Our Teeth
By DL Simmons
Although ambitious and audacious in its day, it lacks the straightforward emotional resonance that makes Our Town such an enduring classic. Defiantly, Berkshire Theatre Group has mounted a new staging that struggles to administer CPR on Wilder's allegorically stagnant diorama.
Coincidentally or not, both plays contain striking similarities: a stage manager who narrates, Brechtian distancing devices like invisible props and audience-recognition, and a plot that purports to speak for all of human existence. The main difference is Our Town takes the micro view — life and death in a small community — whereas The Skin of Our Teeth goes full macro, with a single family representing the entirety of humanity. For all the torment they endure (an ice age, a massive flood, world wars) it's not surprising the play's title comes from the Book of Job.
Wilder's Job is named George Antrobus (sounds like anthropos). Biblically speaking, he's also a stand-in for Adam and Noah. The put-upon Mrs. Antrobus is his underappreciated Eve. Son Henry (Cain) is genetically predisposed toward violence, and boy-crazy daughter Gladys is . . . um, Jezebel? No, that would be their saucy maid Sabina, a vampy temptress who represents chaos, and therefore Satan. The Antrobus Family endures 5,000 years of disasters, both manmade and force majeure. Along the way, Mr. Antrobus invents the wheel, the alphabet and multiplication.
Once the archetypes have been established — and this includes the supporting cast, who play variations of the same exemplars — Wilder doesn't bother digging any deeper into their characters. They just become mouthpieces for his rambling philosophies. As if knowing the dramatic content is weak, he frequently has the actors break character and gripe about the poor writing and their frustrations in general. At the height of World War II, this conceit presumably played like intellectual farce — perhaps a deconstruction of the madcap family comedy that was 1937's Pulitzer-winning You Can't Take It with You. The challenge for subsequent productions is to make Wilder's allegory not only relevant but amusing to modern audiences. That's a tall order.
Director David Auburn's staging is willing to deviate from the text with sporadic references to Berkshire landmarks and a cross-promotional plug for BTG's upcoming production of Shrek: The Musical. But that's about it as far as taking chances. The bulk of his (intentionally) artificial style feels too slavish to the play's original concept. If in 1942 Wilder was asking "How will we survive another world war?", today shouldn't we be asking "How will mankind survive politics, climate change and the internet?" Instead, Auburn concentrates on frenzied blocking, directing the actors to scurry around the stage, arms flailing and lips flapping like a jarring screwball comedy that would've given Cary Grant a headache.
Not that Auburn doesn't earn some well-deserved laughs. Ariana Venturi's ditsy Sabina shows expert comic timing for the most part, and that's rarely achievable without a good director. It's just that he plunders all these little comic grace notes with scenes of earnest chest-thumping that feel overwrought in a play as performed by actors playing actors portraying one-dimensional characters. Again, that's on Wilder, but nimbler direction might have avoided these potholes rather than steer into them.
Venturi must carry the play on slender shoulders, and for two-thirds of its considerable length, she manages ably. She brings a touch of Lucy Ricardo-style hysteria to her chambermaid in the first act, and, wearing a blond wig in the second, a quirky resemblance to Sally Kellerman's high-strung ‘Hot Lips' from the movie M*A*S*H. As the audience's primary surrogate throughout, Sabina provides the lone live spark. It's finally extinguished in Act Three, when the play's humor deflates for good. It would be great to see Venturi in a funnier comedy; she'd probably hit a grand slam in a role like Last of the Red Hot Lovers' ‘Elaine Navazio.'
As Maggie Antrobus, Harriet Harris has the second heaviest role, and it's a character well within her wheelhouse. Harris simply looks and breathes like a survivor from another era, a stalwart matriarch from our parents' parents' generation. (She'd make a marvelous Eleanor Roosevelt if she hasn't played her already.) If Harris is occasionally reticent, it's hard to tell whether she's fumbling for depth or simply determined to insert some. At least she makes the most of her monologue in Act Two, bringing genuine pathos to the line "I didn't marry you because you were perfect . . . I married you because you gave me a promise."
Lynnette Freeman is the standout featured player, making the most of her oracle-based roles as Homer, Fortune Teller and the truth-talking stagehand Ivy. She has a foreboding presence in the first two roles, and then goes and gets the biggest laugh of the evening in the third. The other cast members fare less well, including male leads Danny Johnson (as George) and Marcus Gladney (as Henry). They all do professional work, but none overcome the limitations of the writing. Johnson is affable but not as relatable as an Everyman should be. Gladney's character is flat and repetitious, and it's hard to fathom even Montgomery Clift (who originated the role on Broadway) doing much with it. Claire Saunders' Gladys is most memorable for her canary-colored costumes; her character may be a dum-dum, but she's a vision in highlighter yellow.
There's impressive technical work, in particular the approaching storm during the second act. But in terms of overall inspiration, lightning never strikes. For a play that requires lots of scenery chewing, The Skin of Our Teeth has sadly lost much of its bite.
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Directed by David Auburn
Cast: Ariana Venturi (Sabina/Miss Somerset) Harriet Harris (Mrs. Antrobus) Danny Johnson (Mr. Antrobus) Marcus Gladney (Henry) Claire Saunders (Gladys) Matt Sullivan (Stage Manager/Broadcast Official) Lauren Baez (Muse/Conveneer/Chair Pusher/Usher Bailey) Lynnette Freeman (Homer/Fortune Teller/Ivy) Ralph Petillo (Moses/Bingo Caller/Mr. Tremayne) Marjie Shrimpton (Muse/Telegraph Boy/Hester)
Scenic Designer: Bill Clarke
Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski
Lighting Designer: Daniel J. Kotlowitz
Sound Designer & Composer: Scott Killian
Wig, Hair & Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas
Movement Director: Isadora Wolfe
Casting Director: Alan Filderman
Stage Manager: Abigail Gandy Running time: 170 minutes; two intermissions
Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA
From 7/11/19; closing skinofourteethberk19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at July 13 performance (evening) ..
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