‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ Broadway Review: Thornton Wilder Classic Needs a More Radical Update

The end doesn’t come soon enough in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s problematic play

the skin of our teeh
Photo: Juliana Cervntes

The current Broadway season has offered a few good revivals of plays and a couple of great revivals: Paul Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Lackawanna Blues.” That winning streak ended on Monday with the opening of “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont.

If ever a play needed a high concept, it is Thornton Wilder’s surreal comedy with its many disparate parts and radical shifts in tone. Lileana Blain-Cruz directs this revival with less a vision than a couple of ideas. To call them “concepts” gives her too much credit, and both those ideas hold our attention for a minute or two. That’s a problem for a play with three acts that lasts three hours. I haven’t witnessed this many walk-outs at a theater since the Met Opera last staged Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aaron.”

Blain-Cruz’s big idea is to rely on Lincoln Center Theater’s vast physical resources. With “The Skin of Our Teeth,” set designer Adam Rigg appears to be in a contest with Beowulf Boritt, who designed LTC’s last main stage offering, “Flying Over Sunset.” Who can design a bigger, grander, splashier production with many moving parts? Rigg might win that contest; then again, he has the advantage of putting a life-size dinosaur and mastodon on stage. Both designers provide impressive sets that dazzle only to emphasize the problems elsewhere on stage.

Blain-Cruz’s other idea is to make Wilder’s Antrobus family an African-American family (Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert, Julian Robertson and James Vincent Meredith). Maybe the word “American” doesn’t fit since the four Antrobuses have been around for over 5,000 years to survive prehistoric animals, the Ice Age, wars and plagues. The first time one of the characters mentions “5,000 years,” it gets a laugh. Not so much the fourth or fifth time. But maybe they really are African Americans, because they repeatedly mention living in New Jersey. The first time one of the characters mentions “New Jersey,” it gets a laugh. Not so much the fourth or fifth time.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octaroon”) is credited with “additional material,” and the most obvious additions involve the family’s maid, Sabina (Gabby Beans), who drops references to August Wilson, Toni Morrison and Robert O’Hara’s play “Bootycandy.” To paraphrase a line from Pauline Kael’s review of the film “A Raisin in the Sun,” the switch here proves that a Black family can be just as boring as a white family.

What’s needed is a complete overhaul of the script, something similar to what Will Eno did with Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” to give us his “Gnit.” Or maybe Lincoln Center Theater needed to hire director Claus Guth, who set “La Boheme” on the moon for the Paris Opera a few years ago.

the skin of our teeh
(Photo: Juliana Cervantes)

Blain-Cruz directs her actors to give aggressively unfunny performances. (It’s painful to hear six people giggling in a theater that seats 1,080.) The exception is Priscilla Lopez in the Act 2 cameo of the Fortune Teller at an Atlantic City amusement park, a set that features a three-story slide that various cast members get to enjoy. Lopez presents a modicum of restraint as she delivers a speech about her ability to tell a person’s future but never his or her past. Lopez almost makes sense out of this philosophical bunk.

The Act 2 amusement park begins with a big, shapeless production number and ends with a big, shapeless apocalypse. No choreographer is credited, and it’s clear that Blain-Cruz needed one.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Its destruction of the fourth wall clearly influenced a number of absurdist playwrights in the following decades. Today, that theatrical irreverence is now standard practice. It’s part of our theatrical vocabulary, and what we’re left with, especially in the preachy third act, are Wilder’s long-winded platitudes about survival. In the first act, Wilder lets us know that the son Henry Antrobus used to be called Cain and that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus used to have another son, Abel.