Skin of my teeth

Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is currently onstage at the Polansky Shakespeare Theatre, in Brooklyn, directed by Arin Arbus.PHOTOGRAPH BY HENRY GROSSMAN
Almost any evening, somewhere in America, the curtain is going up on a play by Thornton Wilder. Last year alone, there were four hundred productions. His play “The Skin of Our Teeth,” from 1942, made up about a quarter of those productions, mainly in regional or college venues. (The other half, give or take, belongs to “Our Town,” và the other quarter lớn “The Matchmaker.”) “The Skin of Our Teeth” is currently onstage at the Polansky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn, directed by Arin Arbus. It’s a lollapalooza. The play is about history & war & catastrophe và love, domestic and otherwise, in its glittering raiments. The cast includes dinosaurs, a fortune teller, Moses, Plato, và a mammoth. Just like life, the play interrupts itself, loses track, & makes ludicrous remarks. When the curtain rises on the protagonists’ suburban house in Excelsior, New Jersey, a feeling of deep weirdness settles over the audience.

Part of this is due to lớn the plot. “The Skin of Our Teeth” chronicles the lives of Mr. & Mrs. Antrobus, their children Henry và Gladys, & their household help & factotum, Sabina. But, as we quickly learn, the Antrobuses have been married for five thousand years; Mrs. Antrobus’s real name may be Eve, Henry’s real name is probably Cain; they had another child, a boy, who died in mysterious circumstances. “We’ve always had two children,” Mrs. Antrobus says khổng lồ Moses, when he shows up in Excelsior—yes, that Moses—“just not always the same two.” As in all of Wilder’s plays—from the opening scene, in which Sabina is sweeping the floor và worrying about whether Mr. Antrobus is going lớn make it home safely across the Hudson, to lớn the end, when they all hear the shoe-polish factory’s whistle while inside the bomb shelter—household details, the sheer work of keeping things going, are addressed with industry. Indeed, George Antrobus himself is a slaphappy inventor. (His inventions include the alphabet, the lever, and the wheel, which he carries around with him in the first act.)

The play is in three acts, which occur long ago and far away. In the first, a great ice age is threatening the planet, và there’s a rumor that a sheet of ice has moved down from the north và pushed the cathedral of Montreal into Vermont. The house Sabina is sweeping is freezing, so cold that the mammoths & dinosaurs that live in the yard—in this production they look like giant piñatas, or diva-ish émigrés from “Where the Wild Things Are”—are asking khổng lồ come in. The looming ice age has also created bands of climate refugees, among them Moses and Plato, whom Mr. Antrobus invites in, against Mrs. Antrobus’s protests. Will Eno, whose play “Wakey Wakey” opened this week on Broadway, at the Signature Theatre, told me, after seeing this production, “To be a person sitting in the middle of human history in the middle of my life & see a play about all of human experience! The play is gorgeously excessive & gorgeously rambling. And when the refugees arrive at the door, it is the simplest way of showing it, sad and hard: some people are outside the door, và some people are inside the door, with coffee & sandwiches.”

In the play’s second act, which takes place on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, Mr. Antrobus has been elected “President of the Ancient và Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Human,” and he in turn has selected Sabina, now known as Lily-Sabina Fairweather, hostess of the Bingo Parlor, as Miss Atlantic city 1942. A storm rears up. All the animals that have come to hear his speech, which he fumbles (“I can prophecy . . . With complete lack of confidence, that a new day has dawned”), are herded, two by two, onto a ship, which may or may not be sinking. When the third act opens, the family is reunited after a seven-year war, during which Gladys and Mrs. Antrobus have lived underground, Mr. Antrobus has conducted his business, whatever it is, elsewhere, & Henry Antrobus has continued khổng lồ sow violence, which, after all, began at home. The scene of Henry’s return touches on the unquenchable adolescent in us all: when he says, “Get it into your head. I don’t belong here . . . I have no home,” his father retorts, “Then why did you come here?”

“The Skin of Our Teeth” first opened in New Haven, at the Shubert Theatre, in 1942. It was directed by Elia Kazan, & starred Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, & a very young Montgomery Clift; Variety wrote that the play “bewilders, bemuses, và befuddles, as it amuses.” When it moved to Broadway, to the Plymouth Theatre, it was met with mainly favorable reviews. Brooks Atkinson, in the Times, called it “one of the friskiest & liveliest plays written in a long time,” và Alexander Woollcott said it “was the nearest thing khổng lồ a great play the American theatre has yet produced.” (Commonweal, on the other hand, called it “garish” và “sensationalist.”) Two months before the play opened, Wilder, at forty-five, entered the Army Air Force Intelligence; for his service in wartime he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Légion d’ Honneur, and the O.B.E.; in 1943, Wilder saw the production all the way through only twice.

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