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The Way We Get By

The wheels on the Antrobus go round and round in The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder’s World War II-era The Skin of Our Teeth is an inventive, and somewhat barbed, paean to survival. It follows the Antrobus family as they face down an ice age, a deluge and a very human catastrophe. “We’ve come a long ways,” George Antrobus, the paterfamilias, remarks. “We’ve learned. We’re learning. And the steps of our journey are marked for us here.” Lileana Blain-Cruz has mounted the show with epic scale (and length) at Lincoln Center. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, though. Despite a slew of theatrical ideas, this production can’t humanize its story and get to the heart of the matter.

Told in three acts, we first meet the Antrobus clan (it stems from the Greek Anthropos, for “human”) in the fictional Excelsior, New Jersey, in the 1940s.  George (James Vincent Meredith) has invented the wheel and the lever; mother Maggie (Roslyn Ruff) is a homemaker, but she, too, is an inventor, having fashioned the apron;  (a homebody, and the inventor of the apron); spoiled daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert); and son Henry (Julian Robertson). A couple of problems quickly come to the surface. One: Henry used to be named Cain, and, at some point in the past, he killed his brother, Abel. Additionally, a new ice age seems to be coming, forcing the Antrobuses to host pairs of neighbors as well as their pet dinosaur and woolly mammoth (kudos to James Ortiz’ skilled puppetry) to ward off the glaciers coming down from Canada. (The outsize design, by Adam Rigg, with radiant lighting by Yi Zhao and climate-disaster projections by Hannah Wasileski, suggests a midcentury postmodern aesthetic. Think West Elm on the verge of apocalypse.)

Wilder’s text combines these surrealistic flourishes with Biblical references and allegories, including the Antrobuses’ maid Lily Sabina (Gabby Beans, adopting an Eartha Kitt husk for these scenes). Sabina resents her work as a maid, and Wilder uses (and perhaps abuses) her as device, directly addressing the audience to comment on the action and the play as a whole. “I hate this play and every word in it,” she says. Blain-Cruz has conscripted playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins to modernize some of Skin, and we see most of those updates through Sabina’s irreverence, like, say, swapping in a mention of Bootycandy for Peg O’ My Heart. Some of these changes are similarly innocuous, and others are more substantial – the Antrobuses are now a Black family (the cast is largely portrayed by performers of color), an important take but one that does not add much depth here – for example, a racist murder is now no longer racist. But these changes stretch Beans in ways beyond her technique. She plays things so broadly these grace notes now read as clumsy punchlines.

Blain-Cruz also struggles with focus problems in the first act; there’s simply too much going on all across the stage, with too many characters blending together. The second act, with the action shifting to Atlantic City during the 5,000th annual convention of the Fraternal Order of Humans, which just elected George its president, fares somewhat better. Sabina has become a beauty pageant contestant, bringing out her Lilith side and threatening George’s marriage. Meanwhile, a new natural disaster looms in the form of a flood. Tonally, again, the visual tableau gets overly chaotic, though specifically here the show gets rescued by Wasileski’s projection design and Ruff’s titanic presence, who emerges here as the play’s saving grace, whether it is feigning surprise at being invited to address the convention or defending her son’s errant ways.

The final act is perhaps the one that takes the most creative leeway. The Antrobus home and the landscape have been razed. The decay of what we can now presume to be The Civil War can be felt through Zhao’s hazy lighting and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes. George and Henry have fought on opposite sides, and Meredith is captivating as George comes to terms withs his son’s sins. But despite all these bells and whistles, what has Blain-Cruz’s production taught us? That we can endure. But humans breathe instinctively until forces force us not to. Do we survive because we deserve to, or simply because we do? But what have we learned from this play? I’m not sure. Wilder’s play reminds there are always problems, there are always obstacles, there are always tragedies. And so Wilder’s play is at odds with Blain-Cruz’s production – one is cautionary and one is congratulatory. No one would argue that we live in troubled times. But if you’re looking for instructions on how to get by when the going gets tough, despite a gorgeously decorated stage, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Skin of Our Teeth

Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center