Review: Director Lileana Blain-Cruz Brings ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ to a Modern Audience

The 1942 allegory returns to the stage with Director Lileana Blain-Cruz and star Gabby Beans at Lincoln Center Theater.

Gabby Beans as Sabina Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

It’s not often you see an eighty-year-old shut-in, a person many assumed was dead or demented, jump up and shake their ass to Tropkillaz’s “Hideho” and later quote bell hooks like no big deal. Ah, but don’t look so surprised: Thornton Wilder’s 1942 allegory, The Skin of Our Teeth, is a protean contraption (Harold Clurman deemed the author a gifted “arranger” rather than a genuine creator); its antique parts should occasionally be oiled and replaced. Chronicling his ageless Antrobus clan of over several millennia of triumph and tragedy, Wilder muses—half in pride, half in despair—at deep cycles of humanity surviving ice ages, floods, and war. 

In spectator reality, Skin is a triple-decker mess, a Joycean blurring of ancient and modern lenses, stuffed with quotations from Homer, the Bible, and fourth-wall busting vaudeville commentary. I would qualify its chaotic too-muchness as “unapologetic,” but the maid Sabina (Gabby Beans) frequently breaks character to beg the audience’s pardon and trash-talk her gig. “I’ll say the lines, but I won’t think about the play,” Sabina huffs. “And I advise you not to think about the play, either.” One person who has thought a great deal, and will never apologize, is the prodigious director Lileana Blain-Cruz, supervisor of the Tropkillaz and hooks updates, and triumphant resurrector of this theatrical Lazarus.

Blain-Cruz makes her Broadway debut with this woolly and mammoth undertaking (which includes a woolly mammoth among its dramatis personae). You have to admire her guts, since the title is beloved by many a writer and historian, but is hell to pull off: a three-hour, three-act circus-sermon-threnody requiring hordes of performers, multimedia, and complicated set elements. In each act, director and designers basically have to create or destroy an entire world. As with Shaw, Wilder produces flashes of brilliance, and stretches of fustiness. I regret missing the 2017 production at Theatre for a New Audience, as well as the 1998 Shakespeare in the Park revival. In fact, the only live production I previously saw was by a New Hampshire community theater when I was a kid. No idea what troupe; may as well have been a dream. For decades, this polymathic lament for history and family haunted me, inhabited me, until now.

Which makes Blain-Cruz both a resurrector and an exorcist—casting out the demons of white supremacy from the body of Wilder’s masterpiece. Her acting ensemble is almost entirely people of color; the Antrobus family members are Black—and wonderful actors. George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith, vigorous) is the putative head of the family, simultaneously caveman and American suburban dad, creator of the wheel and beer, a genius and buffoon. Roslyn Ruff brings her queenly dignity to Maggie, a monolith of motherliness who steps out of her domestic role to deliver stirring speeches on gender and history. As the electrons in this nuclear unit, daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and son Henry (Julian Robertson) each disappoint their parents in unique ways: the girl’s burgeoning sexuality scandalizes the household, while the boy, originally named Cain, gravitates toward violence, rejecting social bonds. Which will write the future: the fecundity of the daughter, or the destructive urges of the son?

Today, no less than in 1942, we have to take a breath and acknowledge that Wilder is taking big, prophetic swings in the theater: intercutting the sort of family tragedy Arthur Miller had yet to write with miracle plays from five centuries previous, spiced with quotes from the Bible, the Iliad, Aristotle and other philosophers. Coming out of a pandemic, in a politicized theater environment, one cannot understate how refreshing it is to see a play that thinks big about the long arc of world history with Wilder’s blend of whimsy and pessimism. As far as reversing the usual all-white approach to casting, Blain-Cruz does not attempt to turn Skin into a Black drama, or an explicit commentary on Black history, but she shakes up our assumptions of who gets to stand in for humanity on the world stage.  

Key to that project is Gabby Beans’ outstanding work as the polymorphous Sabina—eternal servant, femme fatale and perverse imp of history. Beans’ vocal work is extraordinarily limber and attuned to the tonal and reality shifts of the script. Her comedy Sabina is a kewpie-doll Eartha Kitt, purring her lines and dashing about the Antrobus living room, dusting furniture and dodging wayward set pieces. When Sabina breaks the fourth wall, her voice drops into a natural, 2022 timbre that distances Beans from the artifice of the maid stereotype. In the second act, as Sabina seduces Mr. (now President) Antrobus, she adopts a fruity French accent to heighten the zaniness. And in the elegiac last act, the aftermath of a war, Beans collapses past and present to voice a Sabina finished with pretenses and masks—at least ‘til peacetime. Physically and vocally, Beans is a splendid comic actor, the Puck of this apocalyptic dream. 

I doubt that any Wilder purist (that term should be an oxymoron) could object to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s surgical tweaks, replacing dated or starchy references. Each choice is sensibly, humorously apt and makes us lean forward, rather than pull out in puzzlement. “Why can’t we have plays like we used to have,” Sabina moans. “South Pacific, and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, and Bootycandy!—good entertainment with a message you can take home with you?” A Longfellow poem recited by Gladys becomes Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” and yes, bell hooks’s Teaching Community was never on Wilder’s bookshelves but thank goodness it is now. 

The Skin of Our Teeth Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Blain-Cruz and her crew of designers engineer a monumental Skin that embraces the vastness of the Vivian Beaumont space. Adam Rigg’s luxury-showroom interior (a football field of red-rose wallpaper) gives way to the hurly-burly signage of Atlantic City and precipitously declining roller-coaster track, and finally back to the Antrobus home, blackened and blasted by war. An overgrown field in the back, numinously lit by Yi Zhao, becomes a memorable final image of both neglect and growth. Montana Levi Blanco’s stylish, 1950s couture for the Antrobi as well as AC revelers are witty and eye-catching; and Hannah Wasileski’s “News of the World” video projections combine just the right elements of newsreel and steampunk meme. James Ortiz’s humongous dinosaur and woolly mammoth puppets pull focus so sweetly and absurdly, it’s for the best they get shooed off the stage. 

Looking at the big picture, this gorgeous monster of a production brings together two urgent trends in theatrical discourse today: casting reparations by creating Black space in the white canon and also, embracing a sprawling meta-drama that feeds a hunger for stories that are not merely sociological but cosmological. We know that patriarchy, greed, and white supremacy have spawned misery across ages; without pretending they have the solution, theater artists can find deep bass strings of commonality to pluck. For me, The Skin of Our Teeth is a boisterous hymn to humanity, the most moving and inspiring work of the season. 

Even so, Skin won’t be to everyone’s taste. There are tonal fumbles in the second act—the French accent laid on a bit thick, Priscilla Lopez’s Fortune Teller too wispy, the chaos before the flood overly manic—but I think a certain degree of failure has always been baked into this idiosyncratic classic. Yes, It’s long and taxing on the brain, but the exhaustion you feel while leaving has the afterglow of exhilaration. We survived this speeding glacier, this world-drowning deluge of a play; we’re spent and dazed; but isn’t life a miracle, and aren’t you glad for tomorrow? 

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Review: Director Lileana Blain-Cruz Brings ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ to a Modern Audience