By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, February 3. Continues until February 18
The Skin of Our Teeth is more stimulating to think about than it is to watch. I don’t mean to slight this production, which approaches the script with zest; it’s just that the play hasn’t entirely stood the test of time.
Thornton Wilder wrote this Pulitzer-winning script, which celebrates human survival in the face of impending disaster, just as the United States was entering the Second World War. It’s no surprise that it’s been revived in recent years, with the threat of doomsday lurking in the shape of Donald Trump.
In the first act, we meet the prehistoric family of Mr. Antrobus, renowned for his invention of things like the wheel and the lever, who brings home a number of refugees seeking shelter as an apocalyptic ice sheet draws closer. Act 2 takes place in Atlantic City as the Antrobuses celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary. They’ve survived the ice age, but here comes a flood! The third act finds the family members returning home after the end of a more recent war, having once again survived catastrophe.
Wilder heaps up the allegorical references, and plays fast and loose with theatrical convention in ways that must have been mind-blowing 75 years ago. “I hate this play,” the Antrobuses’ maid, Sabina, confides to the audience, filling time after a missed cue. “The author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey.” But in 2018 we’ve all gotten pretty used to metatheatricality, and less tolerant of passages that stretch on with little apparent purpose.
But, man, it’s a big show. Director Sarah Rodgers gets very solid work out of her cast of 27 (!), including Erin Palm’s rebellious Sabina, Aidan Drummond’s frazzled stage manager, Mr. Fitzpatrick, and William Edward and Mallory James, who are clear and confident as the Antrobuses. Rodgers also sprinkles 1930s jingles and songs (with help from composer and musical director Joelysa Pankanea) throughout the action. These are lively and well-executed, but along with Sheila White’s period costumes, they create a sense of nostalgia rather than an urgent contemporary relevance.
David Roberts’s clever set reconfigures Studio 58’s seating, with the audience on either side of the Antrobuses’ rooftop, which converts into a boardwalk for Act 2. Emily Cooper’s animated projections are very playful but unfortunately somewhat lost off on a side wall.
So even though Wilder’s script sometimes feels a little like a tossed salad of ideas, you can’t fault the energy being poured into his hopeful message: we will survive.