Dinosaurs, New Jersey and Imminent Doom in “The Skin of Our Teeth”

For some reason, I’ve always hated the truism that conflict is the fundamental ingredient of drama. Yes, we argue, cajole, cajole and settle scores: it’s our species, and it’s often how we show ourselves on stage. But this bit of artisanal wisdom – conflict is king – is the servant of a paranoid anthropology and a limited way of thinking about action and speech. We humans do much more than fight, will against will. And our conversation is not strictly about our need to act or influence others for our own ends. Often, on the contrary, it springs from a mysterious overflow of spontaneous feeling, more a gratuitous gift of sound and syntax – of humor, of love – than a blunt instrument of acquisition.

Moments of elevated and bizarre political and social drama bring us back to basics – what a person is, why we do what we do – in art as much as in life. So I’ve been watching plays these days — especially during April’s overflow of Broadway premieres to meet Tony’s eligibility deadline — in hopes of discovering new ways of thinking about speech on stage. theatrical.

So I was heartened to see actress Roslyn Ruff host a new production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (in a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Viviane Beaumont). Ruff is a fantastically talented performer whose great gift is her ability to dissect long speeches, searching for pleasant rhythms and hidden melodies. I still think back to Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2018 play “Fairview,” in which Ruff played a chic, cutting aunt who, at a moment of mounting tension, launched into a goofy riff about how families overcome problems in movies. His delivery of this monologue convinced me that I would listen to Ruff say almost anything, just as I would pay to hear singers hum the names in the phone book.

In “The Skin of Our Teeth”, Ruff plays Mrs. Antrobus, the matriarch of the Antrobus family. The Antrobus – a biased nuclear unit whose last name is close to anthropos, Greek for “man” – weaving frantically through the rambling action of Wilder’s play, replacing humanity at various difficult moments. The play’s three acts don’t tell a unified story, but what they do have in common is the threat of impending doom.

At first, it becomes clear that the Antrobus live in a dreamlike amalgamation of the Ice Age and a suburb called Excelsior, New Jersey. They’re almost like family in a vintage sitcom. George (the galvanizing James Vincent Meredith), the husband and father, is something of a Promethean domestic hero. He is the inventor of the wheel, the lever and various other tricks necessary for civilization. Mrs. Antrobus is, we are told, “the charming and gracious President of the Excelsior Mothers’ Club”. Their children are Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and Henry (Julian Robertson, convincingly troubled but also funny), two high-strung rapscallions who can’t help but sense impending disaster: “Mom, I’m hungry.” Mom, why is it so cold?

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They also have to deal with a huge source of family shame: Henry was called Cain, and at some point in the past he killed his brother, Abel. This is the logic of the play – it employs so many deft and often slapstick allusions to classical, biblical and philosophical texts that it would be impossible to explain them all without an encyclopedia or a series of footnotes that have lasted as long as the piece. . Insofar as the show provides its own key to interpretation, it goes through the Antrobus maid, Sabina (Gabby Beans), who begins the piece with a long, semi-hysterical monologue, which Beans delivers with a campy rasp reminiscent of Eartha Kitt. . Sometimes, oddly, Beans steps out of the room and addresses the audience, the accent dropping to reveal a more natural, less strained voice.

“I hate this piece and every word in it,” she says:

As for me, I do not understand a word of it, anyway – about the troubles that humanity has been through, there is a topic for you.

Also, the author hasn’t foolishly decided whether we all live in caves or in 1950s Jersey, and that’s how it is throughout.

Oh—why can’t we have coins like we had—South Pacific, and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, and Loot Candy!—good entertainment with a message you can take home?

My own dislike and fascination with the play reminded me of Marianne Moore and her thwarted relationship with poetry, her true love. “Me too, I don’t like it,” she wrote. But, as Sabina begins to understand the play better, she continues to signal her growing awareness to the audience in asides, with a speech that I could only consider a kind of generosity.

Any audience member these days will also, like the Antrobuses, have an end-times scenario in mind; the last act of the play is set in the aftermath of a Seven Years’ War, which seems as likely today as it must have been when the show was created in the early forties. The brilliance of Blain-Cruz’s production is that it’s not so much a faithful adaptation as a critical work, thinking of Wilder’s play while dramatizing the narrative, echoing visually and sonically to the dense thematic thicket of the text. The script, which was completed with modernizing touches by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, calls for a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth, and their very appearance, fluidly aided by an earth-toned puppet crew, acts almost like a symbol of the strange scaffolding of the play, brought into the world and supported by the courageous troop of Blain-Cruz.

Adam Rigg’s sets, an obvious response to Blain-Cruz’s cerebral exuberance, are marvelous – the walk through Atlantic City in Act II, with a working slide, almost took my attention away from the actors. Later, in the last act, a strikingly beautiful display of flowers and tall grasses made its own statement, independent of the text of the play, about the overabundance of beauty in the world and how it turns out. reveals for free, even in the worst times for the species. .

The best representative of this kind of stage thinking is Mrs. Antrobus de Ruff, who, in the second act, is called upon by the members of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans”, of which George has just been elected President. , Make a speech. She and George are about to celebrate their five thousandth wedding anniversary – “I regret every moment”, she says, supposedly by accident – and the Order would like to hear a few words about their marriage.

It’s an interesting contrast: the conflicts in the play are civilizational, existential for the species – wars, glaciers, food shortages. It is therefore perhaps right that moments such as Mrs. Antrobus’ ensuing speech and Sabina’s furtive communication with the audience are forms of address that touch our hearts and attempt, however weakly, to reach our needs. deepest to their roots: lines that look like revelations from an equally perplexed friend; a speech used to encourage, even in the midst of frustration.

Ms. Antrobus hadn’t planned to speak, but she gives a short speech which Ruff, through a series of pauses and thoughtful facial expressions, turns into a kind of thesis statement for the show – and maybe a guide for those who see and reflect. this, via allegory, today. “My husband says the watchword of the year is Enjoy Yourselves. I think it’s very open to misunderstanding,” she says, conjuring up hedonism as a response to problems. Instead, the words she shares advise collaboration and unity, a kind of antidote to thin entertainment and unnecessary rifts between people who ultimately need each other. “My motto for the year is: Save the family. It’s been held together for over five thousand years: Save it! Thank you.” ♦