Filmmaker Michael Moore predicted it, and so did Professor Allan Lichtman.
But did Theatre for a New Audience artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz also know that Donald Trump would be elected president?
Considering that the first play Horowitz scheduled after the 2016 election was THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, we might infer that he saw the Republican victory coming.
For Thornton Wilder’s 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner contains a number of lines that many of us who voted for a different candidate have been saying aloud or to ourselves since November: “There’s a rainy day ahead of us” … “Give the whole thing up!” … “It’s the end of the world.” More to the point, when a would-be action-taker wants an answer to his question “What are people doing about it?” the only response he gets is “Talking, mostly.”
At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, theatergoers uttered plenty of knowing murmurs and little laughs after they’d heard these lines. However, when Mary Wiseman, expertly playing the maid Sabina, broke character according to Wilder’s directive, looked out to us and assured us “The world’s not coming to an end,” a stony audience silence ensued.
Yeah, what are people doing about it? Now some don’t even do “talking, mostly,” so disgusted or frightened are they by what’s going on outside 262 Ashland Place in Brooklyn.
And we haven’t even brought up the issue of refugees, a word that Wilder inserted into his script an even dozen times.
So Wilder’s OUR TOWN isn’t his only play to pass the test of time. THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH now seems as apt as ever. One line certainly hasn’t dated: Mr. Antrobus, our hero, assures us that “The common cold is being pursued.” Seventy-four years after Wilder wrote that, we still haven’t licked the pesky thing, have we?
The play will seem loony to some. A few pages in, Wilder has Sabina break character, instructs the actress to become “herself” and has her unapologetically tell us “I hate this play.” Wiseman doesn’t cause us to wait that long, for as soon as the lights come up, we immediately see from the suck-a-lemon look on her face that she certainly doesn’t believe in what she’ll be performing. When Wiseman says the word “play,” she even adds decisive air-quotes.
Back in ‘42, Sabina mourned “Oh, why can’t we have plays like we used to have: PEG O’ MY HEART and SMILIN’ THRU and THE BAT.” Only the most well-read theatrical aficionado would know those titles today, so they’re always changed to something more recognizable. Director Arin Arbus (one of the best in the business, by the way) presumably suggested that Sabina instead yearn for four musicals: two Disney screen-to-stage properties and a couple of other film adaptations, one of which actually has happened and one that might yet for all we know. The mention of their names alone got big laughs from the crowd.
But this isn’t a business-as-usual comedy, despite the occasional New Jersey joke. Nor is it your standard issue three-act serious play, despite the plethora of drama that pervades it. One of the three threats to man’s extinction — The Ice Age – can’t be pinned on him but the other two can: the second act takes us just before the flood that only Noah and Co. survived; the third brings us to a post-war era. (The war isn’t specified; whichever it was, too many people died during it.)
It’s all seen through the eyes of the Antrobus family. David Rasche gives Mr. Antrobus a matter-of-fact Everyman ease. He amuses when he staunchly reports on man’s progress: “There’s not much more to be done,” he confidently says, in the myopic way people assume when they can’t begin to imagine the wonders of the future.
Kecia Lewis is truly extraordinary as Mrs. Antrobus. She is a proud standard-bearer for family values. How well she represents all the even-keeled down-to-earth wives who stood behind their husbands, looked the other way when they felt they had to and silently bore the shame of the bums’ mistakes. Better still, Lewis even gets a song – a Strong Woman Number – which she powerfully delivers.
We know people with potty-mouths; as a Fortune Teller, Mary Lou Rosato has a putty-mouth, moving it around her all-too-few semi-inflammatory statements such as “Mark my words before it’s too late.” You will have to wait until Act Three to see how potent an actor Reynaldo Piniella is as the Antrobus’ son. That’s when he stops being a rebellious adolescent and becomes a staunch and dangerous militant.
In the “No Small Parts” department, we find Andrew R. Butler, who plays The Announcer at the Convention of Mammals. In conjunction with Arbus, he’s added a sly bit. When he lists the event’s attendees, he blithely reports that “The Wings” and “The Fins” are there – but then he mews out “The Shells” with a scowl that lets us see he doesn’t like them. Will prejudice ever die?
Sound confusing? Theatergoers in the ‘40s who were used to more conventional fare thought it so. Raves from discerning critics and a Pulitzer Prize should have meant more than a 359-performance run – respectable, yes, but very small potatoes to that season’s JANIE (642), THE DOUGHGIRLS (671) and KISS AND TELL (956), all now solely remembered by those who get Turner Classic Movies through their cable providers.
THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH got no film – and on the days it had full houses, it didn’t often keep them. Although the show started each night at 8:30 p.m., taxi drivers soon got word to arrive at the Plymouth Theatre circa 9 p.m., for there would be many walkouts as soon as Act One ended.
There’s an irony in Wilder’s closing his first act with Sabina’s asking audience members to “Pass up your chairs” so she can use them as firewood to combat that Ice Age. Some of those seats in 1942-43 wouldn’t be needed for Acts Two and Three, anyway.
But just as Wilder predicted that the human race would always get by albeit by the skin of their teeth – a Biblical phrase that means “a narrow escape from disaster” – so too has Wilder’s play managed to survive and be constantly revived despite those who can’t begin to get into it. Considering the bang-up job Arbus has done with this masterpiece, just go with the flow, the allegory and the achievement.