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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Theatre for a New Audience


  Ph: Henry Grossman

The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder’s wild, overstuffed, meta-theatrical, allegorical and philosophic pageant of an American nuclear family confronted with everything from domestic squabbles and rivalries to earth-shattering catastrophes (an Ice Age, a flood of biblical proportions, a drawn-out war), could not be more relevant to America at the dawn of the Trump presidency, when many really feel like the world is on the brink of chaos or destruction from either man (nuclear bomb, terrorist attack) or the environment (climate change, extreme weather conditions). And did I mention the part in the play with the mass of refugees?

The 1942 Pulitzer-winning drama has not received a major New York production since a poorly reviewed Shakespeare in the Park production in 1998 starring John Goodman. So let’s applaud the daring of Theatre for a New Audience to not just put on the play, but to give it a large-scale production (directed by Arin Arbus) with a huge cast (35 performers – seriously!) and a complex set design. This is how The Skin of Our Teeth was intended to be seen – big and loud, comic and tragic, ponderous and perplexing, thrilling and clunky, all at once.

Act one opens with an expository monologue (here delivered by an actor dressed as an usher and backed by a slideshow) describing the upper-middle-class Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey and reporting that a deadly mass of ice may be on the way. We then meet the gossipy and flighty family maid Sabina (a part that has been played by Tallulah Bankhead, Vivien Leigh and Mary Martin), who was apparently once the lover of Mr. George Antrobus. The actress playing Sabina is not afraid to drop character and question the merits of the play. Sabina is in constant quarrel with Mrs. Maggie Antrobus, who is primarily concerned about her children, Gladys and Henry (who formerly went by the name of Cain). Mr. Antrobus, who has been hard at work creating the wheel, the alphabet and the multiplication tables, unexpectedly brings home with him countess intellectuals (Moses, Homer, Muses and so on) he hopes to spare from the impending doom outside. There’s no room for the family’s pet dinosaur and mammoth. Mr. Antrobus orders coffee and sandwiches for everyone and that the beds be burned to keep the fire going.

The following act is set in freewheeling 1920s Atlantic City, where the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals is meeting amid forecasts of heavy rain. Sabina, who has somehow morphed into a beauty contest winner, plots and plans to steal Mr. Antrobus away from his wife. But when the storm hits, Sabina is happy merely to get a place on the ark along with the family and the animals (chorus members dressed in the style of The Lion King).

The strange and existential third act takes place as a long war has come to a close, allowing the women to come out of hiding and leading to a confrontation between father and son, who have been fighting on opposite sides. At the end, we are somehow back where we started, with Sabina back as the maid. The human race has survived, by the skin of its teeth, but can it survive the next challenges?

Arbus (who has directed major TFANA productions in recent years, usually starring John Douglas Thompson) manages to coordinate focus between the private family tensions and the crowded spectacles of turmoil, as well as the frivolity and gloom. The set is dominated by the metallic frame of a traditional American home, which is reconfigured throughout the show. In the final act, it has sunken so that the family is sitting on its roof, observing the outside environment following years of war. In a feat of modern stagecraft, it is slowly and mechanically lifted back into place. Arbus also makes use of multimedia displays, life-size animal costumes, original music and the interior of the theater.

David Rausch is ideally cast as Mr. Antrobus, full of politician-like bluster and broad displays of confidence – the sort of person who will instruct people to enjoy themselves while the world around them is toppling. Kecia Lewis is a tough and poised Mrs. Antrobus, who endeavors to maintain a brave face. Mary Wiseman, a recent Juilliard grad who previously appeared at TFANA in An Octoroon, makes for a young, perky, busty and mischievous Sabina.


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