The end of the world looms large in The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder’s perennially relevant exploration of human folly. The existential threat feels especially pronounced in Lincoln Center Theater’s powerful, but inconsistent revival of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner, adapted and updated by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
No matter what, the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey must muddle their way through plagues, an ice age, the great flood, and countless wars. They also deal with petty domestic squabbles like biblical fratricide and the abduction of the Sabine women. As staged in 2022, however, the material cannot—and should not—avoid interpretation through a decidedly contemporary lens.
Listening to the play now, you’ll hear lines as you never have before. In the opening monologue, which extols the virtues of suburban living with a recognizably flinty edge, the maid Sabina offers a brief aside in her reverential description of George Antrobus, the brilliant inventor of the alphabet and the wheel: “Of course, every muscle goes tight every time he passes a policeman.” That Wilder’s conception of a universal everyfamily is portrayed here by Black actors adds an unavoidable weight to this observation—the realization that despite his status and accomplishments, Mr. Antrobus will always be susceptible to both systemic and unconscious racism.
No one is likely to misunderstand the poignant arrival of a caravan seeking refuge on the family’s front lawn from the rapidly ascending frost. The ensemble brings different voices, customs, and languages to the scene, but their shared humanity remains evident. Gladys, the Antrobus family daughter, calls them refugees, and they could just as easily be seen today as Ukrainians or migrants on the Southern border of the United States as they were recognizably German evacuees in the 1940s. The unspoken reason for their presence at the close of the first act—and the conversation of how best to serve them, if at all—reinforces the best and worst elements of our social impulses.
That this scene is largely unchanged stands as a testament to Wilder’s prescience as a playwright. The Skin of Our Teeth requires little finagling to stay timely, and there are many resonant echoes now that may have barely registered when the play was first written. The frozen tundra of the first act and the torrential deluge of the second, which is set on the Atlantic City boardwalk, now seem like obvious allegories for the worsening climate crisis. The unusual family pets—a dinosaur named Dolly and a woolly mammoth named Frederick—might come across as self-consciously absurd, but their presence underscores the extinction threat that all mammals face. The discursive third act, which finds the Antrobuses in ruin and estrangement after a long, violent conflict, speaks to the breakdown of generational bonds for any number of reasons, petty or sincere.
For his part, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps his edits and additions judicious, complementing Wilder’s worldview rather than bulldozing it. His style is best suited to the final scenes, which even in their original form exhibit a kinship to his own works, which test the audience’s assumptions of what is or isn’t meant to happen. The vaguely antebellum costuming (by Montana Levi Blanco, who does vibrant, memorable work throughout) and foregrounding of the metatext over the diegetic material feels like a nod to Jacobs-Jenkins’ breakthrough masterpiece, An Octoroon.
Other revisions work less harmoniously. Despite the first act being moved ahead to the fifties, the second takes place in 1922, which allows set designer Adam Rigg to go wild with colorful Jazz Age signifiers. But why are there extended, anachronistic dance sequences set to contemporary music? These moments are vividly staged, but they add little to the proceedings beyond flair. And the dialogue, original or inserted, doesn’t offer much comment on the time period, despite costuming Mrs. Antrobus to look like a flapper and giving Gladys a Clara Bow wig.
The first act, too, occasionally descends into a state of heightened, self-aware performance style that clashes with the hyperrealism of the script. This is a Blain-Cruz specialty, put to very fine use in productions like Marys Seacole and Anatomy of a Suicide, but it sometimes leaves the viewer too aware of the play-within-a-play construction. You’re left waiting for a character to break the fourth wall, and what should be jarring becomes expected. This is also a byproduct of Gabby Beans’ skillful but arch performance as Sabina.
James Vincent Meredith brings genuine pathos to Mr. Antrobus, avoiding the temptation to play him as a pompous blowhard. He makes the audience keenly aware that the weight of the world sits on his shoulders. As Mrs. Antrobus, Roslyn Ruff constructs a gracious hostess with a spine of steel, although Blain-Cruz’s loud, messy staging of the second act flood scene robs her of the play’s most heartbreaking moment: she’s inaudible when her cries to her wayward son Henry revert to his given name, Cain.
Along with the superb Paige Gilbert (Gladys) and Julian Robertson (Henry), Meredith, Ruff, and Beans portray this unusual family unit as a pack of survivors, in keeping with Wilder’s supposition that human beings are “always beginning again.” The world doesn’t end for the Antrobuses. They keep skating by on the skin of their teeth, but as the houselights dim on their final reconciliation—tense yet hopeful—you wonder how much longer they can endure all the world has to throw at them. If this production achieves anything unreservedly, it’s the sense that survival always comes with a cost.