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Paulanne Simmons

“The Skin of Our Teeth” Delights and Disturbs Once More”

The Skin of Our Teeth
Directed by Arin Arbus
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Feb. 14 through March 19
Tickets: $85-95 www.tfana.org or (866) 811-4111
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 26, 2017


Playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzers. The first, in 1927, was for his novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” The second, in 1938, was for his play, “Our Town.” The third, in 1942, was for another play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Although these works are very different in genre, plot development and style, they all ask similar questions: What is the meaning of life? Why do individuals live and die? Why does our species survive?

“The Skin of Our Teeth,” which is largely allegorical, is the most difficult to understand. The title comes from the biblical Book of Job: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” However, the catastrophes in the play are not endured by a single man, but rather all of mankind as exemplified by the Antrobus family, who live in suburban New Jersey at various stages of human existence.

To complicate matters even more, “The Skin of Our Teeth” is performed as a play-within-a-play, with the maid, Sabina, serving as narrator. The actors sometimes step out of their roles. The stage manager informs the audience that several actors have fallen ill and their parts will be taken up by non-actors involved with the theater

Because this comedy-drama breaks so many theater traditions, it leaves the field wide open for directorial interpretations. In Theatre for a New Audience’s current revival, director Arin Arbus takes full creative advantage of the many possibilities.

In fact, what’s most striking about this show is its vaudevillian qualities. There’s César Alvarez’s original music, dance, parades. Considering all the terrible things that are happening in the world (the Ice Age, the Flood, devastating war) and to the family (some time in the past, the Antrobus’s son, Henry, killed his brother; Antrobus is almost tempted into infidelity by Sabina, now a beauty queen; Henry fights in the war against his father), everyone seems determined to have a good time.
The vaudevillian aspects of the show are enhanced by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s collapsible house that rises and falls with the vicissitudes of the Antrobus’s lives, and Cait O’Connor’s outrageous costumes (who wouldn’t fall in love with the adorable Mammoth and Dinosaur?). Special kudos, of course, go to the energetic and feisty cast.

But “The Skin of Our Teeth” is far from pure entertainment.

As Sabina (Mary Wiseman), a combination of Cassandra, the Greek prophetess of doom, and the Hebrew mythological temptress, Lilith, tells the audience, “The whole world is at sixes and sevens, and why this house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me.”

And Mrs. Antrobus (Kecia Lewis) echoes the thoughts of many long-suffering wives when she says, “Reading and writing and counting on your fingers is all very well in their way - but I keep the home going.”

In fact, many of the problems facing the Antrobus family (climate change, war) should be familiar to anyone living in the 21st century. Thornton Wilder completed “The Skin of our Teeth” less than a month after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At that time, the future of the world did indeed seem to be in question.

In 1942, no one had the luxury of taking the advice Mr. Antrobus (David Rasche) offers in act II: “I give you the watchword for the future: Enjoy Yourselves.” One is tempted to believe Wilder would consider those words equally ironic today.


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