Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.
-- W.H. Auden
"My husband wanted to leave," an attractive blond woman told me during the intermission for The Skin of Our Teeth, "but I said we couldn't. I can't wait to find out what's going to happen to us."
By "us," she meant everyone -- the theme of Thornton Wilder's play being nothing less than the survival of the human race. As for her husband's wanting to leave, there was precedent for it. When The Skin of Our Teeth first opened on Broadway in 1942, cabbies made serious bucks congregating in front of the theater during intermission to pick up the hordes of exiting audience members.
But the play is a delight, and director Laird Williamson has staged a fresh, charming and thoughtful production. The evening begins with the complaints of the maid, Sabina. She's tired of working for the Antrobus family and nervous about a wall of ice that seems to be encroaching on their neighborhood and causing the house to sag and creak. Furthermore, Sabina explains (as the actress suddenly and entirely breaks character), the script she's speaking at this moment is such a load of rubbish that she doubts even the playwright understands it. Later, we meet her employers, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. He's gruff and given to bursts of caveman-like rage, though he's also the inventor of both the alphabet and the wheel; she's placid and kindly. They have two children: bratty little Gladys and violent Henry. There are puzzling moments when Moses and Homer drop in (the former wearing a yellow star), and periodically, neighbors swarm the house looking for food and warmth. Oh, and sometimes a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth -- dressed like cheery children's toys -- join the humans. The act ends as Sabina exhorts the audience to donate their chairs to help build up the Antrobuses' fire and save humanity.
The second act is set on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where Mr. Antrobus has just been declared head of the Ancient Honorable Order of Mammals. He has, at this point, invented the lever and the brewing of beer. Mrs. Antrobus, not to be outdone and wearing a pillbox hat and stiff cotton-candy hair, is honored for the hem and frying with oil. A multi-chinned fortune teller stalks this territory, doling out gloomy forecasts: "Everybody's in the way," she intones, "except yourself." Hordes of masked and subhuman revelers cavort stupidly, while the sea inexorably rises. Son Henry is skulking about the set like James Dean, and Sabina has been reincarnated as a plastic-fantastic sex toy who soon manages to seduce Mr. A.
If the first act is puzzling and the second cartoonish, then the third is grim. The Antrobus house is a grimy, burned-out shell. Sabina enters, her face dirty, her black stockings ripped. The war is over, she tells us, and we have a pretty good idea of how she survived it. So now the world has been destroyed by ice, flood and the fire of rage and violence; the question is whether Sabina and the Antrobuses, who have somehow lived through so many millennia, can find the heart to keep going. If they can't, it's curtains for us.
Once again, the fourth wall is breached as the stage manager rushes on to explain that a presentation has been planned for this act, having to do with the thoughts of great men and the hours on the clock, but the actors who were supposed to voice those thoughts have been taken ill. They'll be replaced by backstage workers, such as the dresser, the usher and the wardrobe mistress. We watch as the stage manager coaches these understandably nervous folk. "Just imagine they're all on the toilet," he says soothingly, gesturing toward us. Amazingly, when the recitation finally happens, it does the trick -- and not just for the weary Antrobuses. Even as I reflected that there was something didactic in Wilder's suggestion that it's only the words of past great thinkers that can save us, I found myself deeply moved by those words, in particular because they came from the mouths of ordinary working people (okay, actors playing working people).
Perhaps some viewers have trouble with The Skin of Our Teeth because of its unique synthesis of comedy and sadness. There's also the fact that much of the symbolism is so glaringly obvious that you feel you should be able to work out a schematic for the entire play. If Henry is Cain, you say to yourself, then Gladys should be...whom? And how do you deal with the way Wilder's mixing up natural history, archeology, contemporary mores and the Bible? In addition, some of the assumptions underlying the action seem dated. Why is it the man who both embodies and carries forward all of civilization, while his wife extols the deep, oceanic mysteries of the female psyche? People in the '40s would certainly have found depth and piquancy in the idea that a cheeky maid could also represent the eternal seductress (Helen of Troy, Cleopatra), but all such stereotypes have since come into question.
But Wilder is trying to do something magnificent. He wants to say what can't be said and penetrate mysteries that can't be solved. He's asking what it means to be human and how we can stay human in the face of disaster. The son, Henry, represents murder, and somehow the Antrobuses are stuck with him. In a sense, they love him. Even after the earth-destroying cataclysm that precedes Act Three, they can't bring themselves to throw him out. There's a point when Justin Yorio, who plays Henry, also breaks character to explain that he sometimes can't control his rage on stage because of his own violent and deprived childhood. Is Wilder saying that suffering breeds violence, or that this kind of self-pity is loathsome? The script allows you to parse it both ways. Ultimately, it's the playwright's struggle with contradictory elements, dazzling clarity alternating with wretched confusion, that makes The Skin of Our Teeth a work of art. Samuel Beckett once spoke of "the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" -- though Wilder's desire to express is clear enough.
Jamie Horton carries the role of Mr. Antrobus with bluff but never overbearing authority, giving the character nuance, depth and feeling. It's a skilled, generous performance that functions as the play's strong bass line. Jacqueline Antaramian has a voice like cut glass, and she's an amazingly pert and funny Sabina. In the less showy but crucial role of Mrs. Antrobus, Carol Halstead is warm, steady and understated. Stephanie Cozart has a lot of fun with Gladys, and it's infectious. Yorio's Henry seems insufficiently developed to me. Even when given a part that's fuzzy or ambiguously written, an actor can provide specificity through the timbre of his voice, his carriage, the set of his mouth -- but Yorio doesn't. Kathleen Brady is a lizard-like hoot as the Russian fortune teller; you keep expecting the flicker of a forked tongue. There's great strength, too, in all the smaller parts. In particular, the actors brought something deeply touching to the roles of the Hours -- Keith L. Hatten's shyness as the usher and the precision and presence of the marvelous Randy Moore.