The Skin of Our Teeth
Constellation Theater Company, Washington, DC
$25-$55, through February 18
In the beginning, there was a man and a woman. No, not Adam and Eve: Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (think “anthropos,” or human). At the start of Constellation Theatre Company’s delightful production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, they appear onstage as the perfect mid-century couple, with the requisite two kids, a boy and a girl, a knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright house, and a few adorable pets. The only difference? Their comfortable life has been plunked down in prehistory.
This is Wilder’s cheerfully surreal allegory of the calamities of humanity, in which we survive disasters, wrestle with sin, and try to raise our kids right. Wilder, the author of Our Town (1938), one of the most beloved American plays, finished the script only a month after Pearl Harbor. First produced in 1942, it delivered an uplifting message to a country still recovering from the Depression, and now in the midst of its second major war of the century. We might be tempted to read Wilder’s play as an allegory for our era as well, with its political unrest, huge disruptions of populations around the globe, and changing world economy.
Historical resonances aside, Constellation’s charming production is a treat to watch. In the tiny black box theater in Washington, DC, you can see every gesture the actors make. They perform with an understated physicality that is thoroughly appealing and perfectly calibrated for the space. No less enchanting is the set, a beautiful, intricate toy that folds and unfolds before your eyes. Of special note is Tonya Beckman as the rebellious and seductive maid, Sabina. On the page Sabina is often irritating—a clichéd, scheming servant/seductress—yet Beckman manages to make her charming, mildly ridiculous, and sympathetic. And Steven Carpenter as Mr. Antrobus couldn’t be more perfect as a bureaucrat or businessman (in DC, it’s impossible not to assume the former, though the play doesn’t specify). Forget central casting—he’s straight out of the Office of Personnel Management. If you want a delightful evening this President’s Day weekend, buy a ticket.
This wonderful production does full justice to Wilder’s cleverness, but does his cleverness do justice to humanity? Compared to Wilder’s era, ours is comfortable and secure. It’s understandable that we would look to an earlier time for wisdom and reassurance, especially a time of darkness that gave way to decades of prosperity. Sadly, the play is more ambitious than effective. It celebrates humans’ ability to survive, true. But in doing so, it reduces them to less than what they are.
The first act of the play is its most effective, a gem almost worth the price of admission by itself. We are in mid-Ice Age, the glaciers sweeping across North America and freezing everything in their paths. In the midst of the chaos, Mr. Antrobus keeps trekking to the office every day to invent the wheel and compile the alphabet. (He’s particularly proud of “separating n from m.”) Mrs. Antrobus is a homemaker in charge of two unruly children, a pet mammoth and dinosaur, and a dark secret. Wilder made a clever choice in pairing the archetypal mid-century family, artificial in its own right, with the absurdity of a bureaucracy that invents letters. He emphasizes the rickety foundations of human civilization with sympathy, not condescension. And when deployed against a descending wall of ice, the chin-up attitude of wartime is especially poignant.
While the ice is looming, the Antrobuses open their home to those whom Sabina calls, pregnantly, “refugees.” In 1942 these poor souls must have evoked war refugees or people made homeless and destitute by the Depression. Nowadays, of course, the scene has another resonance. It seems to be a moral lesson, that the immigration policies of Trump and the European nationalists are cruel. Wilder does his best to dramatize the conflict between selfishness and kindness, but the scene ends up pulling its punches, a victim of its own conceit.
The Antrobuses make a choice in the face of certain death, as people freeze on the roads out of town. The glaciers are within sight of their house. Certainly, giving away food that could feed your children for another week or two is heart-wrenching—Mrs. Antrobus is against it at first. Yet selfishness is often borne of hope, and there is none here. Nor are there the logistics of a future to consider. In our times, immigration policy is made by those who face election next year, or who have to reknit a society made up of both newcomers and natives. We should still be kind and merciful, of course, and the Antrobuses’ generosity is inspiring. But the mercy of a new life is much more difficult to offer than the kindness of a last meal. An allegory that doesn’t wrestle with this fact is less useful for all of us. In certain ways, reality is sadder than Wilder lets on—and yet still, people do the decent thing.
Director Mary Hall Surface made the right choice, playing it straight and keeping the actors earnest, instead of festooning the production with winks and nods at modern politics. Unfortunately, and through no fault of the company’s, the play simply gets weaker as it goes on. The second act is particularly puzzling, a flood narrative robbed of its religion and pathos. Wilder is charming enough that you’ll enjoy watching it anyway—most amusingly, Mr. Antrobus gives a speech to a Convention of Mammals.
We find our once-struggling family on the boardwalks of Atlantic City in all its decadence. (How did they survive? Who knows? They’re allegorical.) Mr. Antrobus is planning an affair with Sabina, who seems to be the same person as Sabina the Maid in Act I. Yet the family is still selected for survival on the Ark, though they exhibit little more virtue than the dissipated society around them. There’s no God exhorting Noah to believe in his salvation. Worse, the Ark is no endeavor of human faith and ingenuity, but a taxi that pulls up, fortunately indeed, at the very last moment.
I can’t help but see the shadow of the 1940s, of a society tired of watching war and poverty ravage people who were no worse or better than their luckier neighbors. It’s a deus ex machina ending without deus. True, blind luck is often what saves people from disaster. Yet there are aspects to the Noah story that inspire even if you don’t believe in God—the fortitude of Noah’s family, their organizational capacity, their craftsmanship, the love and cooperation that see them through the near-total destruction of their world. Deprive the narrative of God, and you deprive humanity of its grandeur in rising to meet God’s expectations. Generally, what we find inspiring amid the carnage and despair of war are those people, religious and not, who prove so much better than their circumstances. This version of human survival is meaningless and bleak—perhaps bleaker than necessary.
Fittingly, the play ends in war. By the third act the family is wasting away in bunkers. The most affecting element in this act is that the war occurs between actual family members, a closer bond than mere shared humanity. (I won’t tell you who.) The actors handle their final outing with admirable poise, finding pathos in their limited material. Yet this chapter is also the weakest, because the war is so unreal—totally abstracted from circumstances, attributed to the persistent evil of one character through the ages. It offers false comfort by making evil obvious, instead of rendering it as it often appears: in an alluring disguise. It’s difficult for a modern audience, familiar with the decades of excuse-making for Soviet crimes, to credit that evil is so constant and self-evident that supposedly decent people will always recognize it.
Which brings us to another disadvantage of the allegory: These humans never change. Mr. Antrobus is always subject to temptation, Mrs. Antrobus always proud. Sabina is always (understandably) resentful, trying to get ahead as she can. This play is clearly intended to be optimistic on the whole, albeit with some reservations. But if survival is all that we do, and there isn’t even the chance of moral change, it’s hard to be truly uplifted.
Maybe it says something about this clever play that the aspect I found most frustrating at first grew more appealing by the end—in concept, if not execution. Thornton Wilder is famous for breaking the fourth wall in Our Town, a play about the small yet sometimes beautiful lives of ordinary people. In Skin of Our Teeth he takes the device to new extremes. Sabina the maid keeps interrupting the play to talk to the audience, telling them at one point not to be disturbed by the sight of humans dying of cold—the Antrobuses lived ages ago, back when people were “savages.” At other times, the action simply breaks down, upon which a “stage manager” materializes to kick the actors’ rears into gear. While these interruptions are incredibly contrived, I began to think of them less as the playwright showing off and more of an argument about human nature. We all try to escape our worst moments, mentally exiting from reality and indulging in rationalizations, sometimes cruel ones. And stage plays are contrived to begin with, sailing by the seat of everyone’s pants. Thornton Wilder saw fit to make the backstage contrivances obvious, linking the struggle of actors putting on a show to the struggle of humans to survive.
The lesson of this allegory is emphasized with a sledgehammer: Humans have survived and will keep surviving. With the help of books, they will restart society from the worst of ruins (Mr. Antrobus makes sure to save his volumes of Shakespeare). Yet after the initial and rather basic achievements of the wheel and the alphabet, we see nothing more of human inventiveness in action. The great philosophers are analogized to the hours in the day, as if they were simply features of existence like the passage of time. (Homer, the Muses, and Moses wander in with the refugees of the first act, but as humanity is still stuck at “n,” they seem more like natural resources than human achievements.) Yet it’s impossible to understand the great epochs of horror and survival independently of the knowledge gained (or not), or the cultures that endured and perpetrated them.
I can’t help but admire a play of such cleverness and ambition, especially in this splendid production. And perhaps it’s carping to suggest that Wilder bit off more than he could chew; no two-and-a-half-hour play is going to be the final word on human history. You might argue that the Antrobuses are average by definition. But if they are given to feats of cruelty like total warfare, why not other, nobler extremes of human behavior? Wilder shows his own creativity to dazzling effect—and I encourage you to see it unfold in person. Ironically, he does not endow his creations with the same facility.