Monday, July 22, 2019

The Skin of Our Teeth: A World in Crisis

Ariana Venturi in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of The Skin of Our Teeth. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth made a splash on Broadway in 1942, where it starred Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge. America was at war and Wilder’s loony conceptual vaudeville, which presented the history of the human race in a modern American setting, intertwining Genesis with anthropology – in act one a dinosaur and a mammoth shiver in the back yard; act two ends with the animals marching onto Noah’s ark – addressed the struggle for survival and struck a chord with audiences. But after World War II it disappeared from the repertory (though there were two TV adaptations, one with Mary Martin and one with Vivien Leigh). Now, with its references to climate change and refugees and its presentation of war as an eternal verity, it’s popular again all over the country.

Those who live within driving distance of the Berkshires are lucky to be able to see David Auburn’s highly entertaining revival at Berkshire Theatre Group, with Danny Johnson and Harriet Harris as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, Wilder’s version of Adam and Eve as America’s first couple and Ariana Venturi as Sabina, their shallow, charming maid. Mr. Antrobus is the inventor and the intellectual; Mrs. Antrobus is the soul of domestic wisdom and the foremost cheerleader for the family, who endures his occasional philandering and keeps the home fires burning. (In act two, set in Atlantic City, Sabina becomes the beauty contest winner who almost succeeds in luring Mr. Antrobus away from his wife.) Auburn has staged the play wittily, and he and his designers – Bill Clarke (sets), Hunter Kaczorowski (costumes), Daniel J. Kotlowitz (lighting), Scott Killian (sound) and J. Jared Janas (wigs, hair and make-up) – have met the weird demands of the script with revue-sketch humor and resourcefulness. The Antrobuses’ pet dinosaur and mammoth are cardboard cut-outs of lower body parts that stretch to the upper limits of the stage space; the animals ascending the ark are paired members of the ensemble sporting cunning masks; and so on.

The production, like the other BTG shows I’ve seen under Auburn’s direction (Period of Adjustment and The Petrified Forest), is very well acted, especially by the women: Harris, Venturi and Claire Saunders as the Antrobuses’ daughter Gladys. Harris brings a plaintive, neurotic quality to Mrs. Antrobus that deepens and complicates Wilder’s portrait of her as a pillar of maternal virtue, 1940s style – a Yankee Mrs. Miniver. Venturi has a wild-card comic presence with elements of stand-up and SNL-style impersonation. Danny Johnson plays Mr. Antrobus as equal parts genuine hero and billboard celebrity; he and Auburn have fun with his preening masculinity. Marcus Gladney Jr. fumbles with the tricky role of Henry, the Antrobuses’ son, the slingshot-wielding Cain who killed his brother ages earlier in an unfortunate “accident” and who emerges in act three as the face of every enemy. (Gladney appears to be miscast.)

That third act is the play’s bugbear. It takes place at the end of a long war (of which Henry is the symbolic cause), and Wilder’s polemical side got so carried away when he wrote it that he drained out all the crazy humor that keeps the first two acts merrily afloat. I don’t know how you’re supposed to make it work, and Auburn hasn’t solved the problem. Nonetheless I’d score The Skin of Our Teeth as a win for BTG.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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