It’s not often you see an eighty-year-old locked in, someone who many assumed was dead or demented, jumping up and shaking their ass at Tropkillaz’s “Hide” and later quote bell hooks like no big deal. Ah, but do not look so surprised: Thornton Wilder’s allegory from 1942, The skin of our teeth, is a protean thing (Harold Clurman considered the author a gifted “organizer” rather than a true creator); its antique parts should occasionally be oiled and replaced. Wilder depicts his timeless Antrobus clan with the triumph and tragedy of several millennia and muses – half in pride, half in despair – in deep cycles of humanity surviving ice ages, floods and war.
In the reality of the spectators, Skin is a triple mess, a joycean blur of ancient and modern lenses, filled with quotes from Homer, the Bible, and fourth-wall bursting vaudeville commentary. I would qualify its chaotic pre-mass as “unapologetic,” but the maid Sabina (Gabby Beans) often breaks character by asking the audience for apology and trash-talk her concert. “I want to say the lines, but I do not want to think about the play,” Sabina chuckles. “And I advise you also not to think about the play. “One person who has thought a lot and will never apologize is the wonderful director Lileana Blain-Cruz, supervisor of Tropkillaz and hooks updates, and triumphantly revives of this theatrical Lazarus.
Blain-Cruz makes his Broadway debut with this woolly and mastodon venture (which includes a woolly mammoth among his dramatic personae). You have to admire her courage, as the title is loved by many writers and historians, but is a hell of a draw: a three-hour three-act circus-sermon-threnody that requires hordes of artists, multimedia, and intricate scenographic elements. In each act, the instructor and designer must basically create or destroy an entire world. As with Shaw, Wilder produces glimpses of brilliance and stretches of fustiness. I’m sorry to miss the 2017 production at the Theater for a New Audience, as well as the Shakespeare in the Park revival of 1998. In fact, the only live production I previously saw was of a New Hampshire community theater when were children. No idea which squad; might as well have been a dream. For decades, this polymathic lament over history and family haunted me, inhabiting me until now.
Which makes Blain-Cruz both a resurrector and an exorcist – expelling the demons of white supremacy from the body of Wilder’s masterpiece. Her acting ensemble is almost exclusively colored; The members of the Antrobus family are black – and wonderful actors. George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith, vigorous) is the presumed head of the family, at the same time caveman and American suburban father, the creator of the wheel and beer, a genius and a hassle. Roslyn Ruff brings her queenly dignity to Maggie, a monolith of motherhood who steps out of her domestic role to hold touching speeches about gender and history. Like the electrons in this nuclear unit, daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and son Henry (Julian Robertson) each disappoint their parents in unique ways: the girl’s budding sexuality scandalizes the household, while the boy, originally named Cain, goes against violence, rejection of social ties. Which will write the future: the daughter’s fertility or the son’s destructive urges?
Today, no less than in 1942, we must breathe a sigh of relief and acknowledge that Wilder is making great, prophetic fluctuations in the theater: cutting through the kind of family tragedy Arthur Miller had not yet written with miracle plays from five centuries earlier, spiced with quotes from the Bible, the Iliad, Aristotle and other philosophers. When you come out of a pandemic, in a politicized theater environment, you can not underestimate how refreshing it is to see a play that thinks big about the long arc of world history with Wilder’s mixture of whimsy and pessimism. As for reversing the usual all-white approach to casting, Blain-Cruz is not trying to reverse Skin into a black drama or an explicit commentary on black history, but she shakes up our assumptions about who is going to stand for humanity on the world stage.
The key to that project is Gabby Beans’ unique work as the polymorphic Sabina – eternal servant, femme fatale and perverse imp of the story. Beans’ vocal work is extraordinarily smooth and attuned to the script’s tone and reality shift. Her comedy Sabina is a kewpie doll Eartha Kitt who spins in her lines and whizzes around the Antrobus living room, dusting furniture off and avoiding headstrong scenery. As Sabina breaks the fourth wall, her voice falls into a natural 2022 tone that removes Beans from the maid’s stereotype. In the second act, when Sabina seduces Mr. (now President) Antrobus, she assumes a fruity French accent to increase the insanity. And in the elegiac last act, aftermath of a war, Bean’s past and present collapse to express a Sabina finished with pretensions and masks – at least until peacetime. Physically and vocally, Beans is an excellent comic book actor, the Puck of this apocalyptic dream.
I doubt any Wilder purist (that term should be an oxymoron) could object to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ surgical adjustments replacing dated or starchy references. Each choice is sensible, humorously apt, and makes us lean forward instead of pulling ourselves out in confusion. “Why can’t we have plays like we used to have,” Sabina groans. “the South Pacific, and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, and Bootycandy! -good entertainment with a message you can take home? ” A Longfellow poem recited by Gladys turns into Maya Angelous “On the morning pulse” and yes, bell hooks Teacher community was never on Wilder’s bookshelves, but thank God it is now.
Blain-Cruz and her crew of designers are developing a monumental Skin which embraces the large Vivian Beaumont room. Adam Rigg’s luxury showroom interior (a football field of red-pink wallpaper) gives way to the stiff signage of Atlantic City and the abruptly falling roller coaster, and finally back to the Antrobus home, black and bursting with war. An overgrown field in the back, nominally lit by Yi Zhao, becomes a memorable last image of both neglect and growth. Montana Levi Blanco’s stylish couture from the 1950s for Antrobi as well as AC parties is witty and eye-catching; and Hannah Wasileski’s “News of the World” video projections combine the perfect elements of news movies and steampunk meme. James Ortiz ‘colossal dinosaur and woolly mammoth dolls draw focus so sweetly and absurdly, it’s for the best that they’re shot off stage.
Looking at the big picture, this amazing monster of a production brings together two pressing trends in theatrical discourse today: to provide compensation by creating black space in the white canon and also embracing a vast metadrama that feeds a hunger for stories that is not just sociological but cosmological. We know that patriarchy, greed, and white supremacy have spawned misery across times; without pretending they have the solution, theater artists can find deep bass strings of common traits to pick. For me, The skin of our teeth is a noisy hymn to humanity, the most moving and inspiring work of the season.
Nonetheless, Skin will not fall in everyone’s taste. There are tonal fumbles in the second act – the French accent laid on a bit thick, Priscilla Lopez ‘Fortune Teller too muffled, the chaos before the flood too manic – but I think a certain degree of failure has always been baked into this idiosyncratic classic. Yes, it’s long and stressful for the brain, but the exhaustion you feel as you leave has the afterglow of elation. We survived this rapid glacier, this world-drowning flood of a game; we are exhausted and dazed; but is not life a miracle and are you not happy tomorrow?
Buy tickets here.