Four years after Thorton Wilder’s (the great American 20th century playwright) exceptional and Pulitzer Prize winning “Our Town” -a meta exercise in fourth wall burning down, and the day after Pearl Harbor brought the USA into a fresh apocalypse, Wilder’s follow up to “Our Town”, “The Skin Of Your Teeth” arrived. Like “Our Town” it broke the fourth wall and like “Our Town” it was a meta exercise in alternate realities, though taking the nth power.
“The Skin Of Your Teeth” – chronicling the story of the Antrobus family of the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey through 5000 years and three acts about three catastrophes that force the Antrobus parents and children to start anew, about the human races resilience that made more sense in the pre-Hiroshima age of reason though a mere ten years after the age of doubt (the one we are living in) began. Even as the US embarked on their WWII, Wilder could still see the light at the end of the tunnel (he fought in WW2): unlucky for Wilder, 80 years later it has been brought to its conclusion with nuclear weapons and global warming pointing to a finishing end for the human race he couldn’t imagine.
This is a problem for Wilder and “The Skin Of Our Teeth”, it never ran true because it isn’t true. But it is alternate history where Mr. Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith) is not only Adam in the first act, but an Adam who invented the alphabet and the wheel (his son Cain, er, Henry suggested a seat for it), Noah in the second act and a Lincoln of sorts in the third, and the human race always regroups and moves forward. A hope we can no longer share.
It hurts the revival which closes today (Sunday May, 29th, 2022) despite Lileana Blain-Cruz, Resident Director at LCT, astonishing work making a play that is losing its grasp as we move further in the 21st century. By changing the story of the Antrobus’ family and their sassy maid Sabina to people of color she adds a layer to the story of the move ever forward. The change of race never adds dividends to the play, though it doesn’t hurt either.
Act One occurs in a modern stone age family suburbia where a pet dinosaur and mammoth are enjoined as Mrs Antrobus plays wifey and a voice of reason and a huge chunk of ice is on the horizon waiting to annihilate them. If taken even remotely realistically this makes no sense, something the audience stand-in and fourth wall annihilator Sabine (in a career making tour de force and Tony nominated performance by Gabby Beans -anybody remember Vivian Leigh in the role?), who breaks character to echo some of the audiences clear opinion, “I hate this play and every word in it,” she tells us during the first act which ends with the start of the ice age. Sabine is Florence of the Jeffersons, the sitcom this most resembles.
The second act is a glorious Atlantic City Boardwalk sometime during the 1920s, where Sabine becomes Lilith and seduces Mr. Antrobus before he and his family enter the ark and the second end of mankind occurs. Act Three is almost an early blueprint for Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”, the war is over, the world moves on with a handful of books, including Spinoza and The Bible, and is ready to rebuild.
Thornton Wilder has built an alternative world way ahead of its time (except for the fourth wall variant on Shakespearean roles where the characters talk to themselves and thus to the audience). It is called metatheatre but “Our Town” is metatheatre, the maximalist re-imagining of “The Skin Of Our Teeth” is metauniverse decades before anyone thought of it, a beautiful and thrilling production that confused the audience more than ever and found audience members leaving at intermission because they were so confounded by when and where. It might not quite payoff on the three hour running time with clarity as to the human condition, mostly because the human condition as it applies to the end of the world has so thoroughly evolved where “The Skin Of Your Teeth” plays like wishful thinking, it thrives as a superb cast of actors (over thirty), a stunning production, and a thoughtful and powerful production that still can’t square the circle. It barely lasted a month before getting cancelled. The problem with the production is not that people don’t get it, it is that it has been proven wrong, and so the mounds of philosophical exegesis bores. If Wilder’s “The Skin Of Your Teeth” is to survive, its structure must remain while its actions evolve for the age of doubt. That must be the next iteration.
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