Off-Broadway Review: “Skin of our Teeth” at Theatre for New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Off-Broadway Review: “Skin of our Teeth” at Theatre for New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Closed Sunday March 19, 2017)
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Arin Arbus
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited

If ever there was an allegorical play, this is it.  Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” was written in 1942, won the Pulitzer Prize, had two apparently great productions on Broadway – starring the likes of Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and Helen Hayes—then poorly received ones, and subsequently was deemed extremely difficult to pull off.

Well, Theatre For a New Audience likes a challenge, and is performing a wildly inventive, if occasional unwieldy, version at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Directed by the brave and creative Arin Arbus, “Skin of Our Teeth” is clearly not for the faint of heart or the accidental tourist. But then, one assumes that those who step inside the Polonsky know what they are in for. In this case, it is an ice age in the middle of summer, floods on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and a fractured and fragile society following a world war.

Did I mention the large ensemble sings “Jingle Bells,” along with a few original numbers? Whether Wilder would have imagined that, who knows? (There is some updating in the script, such as mention of Trader Joe’s and phrases like “give it up.”) Apparently, the unconventional theatrical conceits throughout–crashing sets, sudden blackouts, and halts in the action to converse with the audience– were all in the original script.

At the beginning of Act Three, for example, the director explains that a number of actors have taken ill, (not true) so are being replaced in a final scene by ushers, dressers and the like. We are asked to chat among ourselves while they do a quick rehearsal. This is actually amusing, and ultimately moving, when that final scene is played out for real. At another point, a main character, who often shoots quips at the audience, refuses to continue. (“I don’t understand a single word of this play!”) The actress playing that temperamental performer, by the way, is Mary Wiseman, who pretty much steals the show.

The plot, such as it is, follows the Antrobus family over a 5000 year struggle for survival. The father (played by David Rasche) is an inventor of things like the wheel and the alphabet. His wife (the very strong Kecia Lewis) is the matriarch who holds her family –they have two children–together. In the beginning, their home in Excelsior, New Jersey, becomes a sanctuary for refugees from the encroaching glacier. (“The dogs are sticking to the sidewalk!”) The family is again threatened in the second act, when raging water becomes the enemy, and in the third, when years of war have taken their tattered toll.

Clearly, the idea of doing this difficult play at this moment, is its amazing resonance. Climate change? Refugees? Wars? Thank you, Thornton Wilder, for your prescience. It is hard to believe this is the same man who mined sentiment and nostalgia in “Our Town.” Though some sneaks through, as when a fortune-teller predicts some of the future, but acknowledges, “no one can tell the past. Who knows what happened to your youth?”

Will audiences have a gloriously fun time here? I doubt it, though I saw very few walkouts and it is difficult not to appreciate the effort and the obvious talent.  Theatre for a New Audience has become a perfect neighbor for BAM, pushing the envelope even more so in its choices. “The Skin Of Our Teeth” is a worthy and admirable addition. It will make you worry, (“One more tight squeeze and where will we be?”) and make you wonder –that is a pet dinosaur, isn’t it? Will it make you laugh in these times? Not so much. And maybe that’s the point.