Thornton Wilder was stylistically influenced by German Expressionism; ideologically by James Joyce’s use of Giambattista Vico. With some justification, he has even been accused of cribbing from, among others, Georg Büchner. Still, in Our Town and several others, he created archetypally American works, which the Germans, reciprocating, clutched to their bosoms.
In The Skin of Our Teeth (l942), Wilder’s most Expressionist play, humanity, represented by Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (anthropos, Greek for man), son Henry (formerly Cain), and daughter Gladys inhabit modern-seeming Excelsior (Latin for upward), New Jersey, but, in the course of three acts, escape three ancient scourges: the Ice Age, the (biblical) Flood, and War (presumably World War II), if only by the skin of their teeth. In an America being drawn into that global conflict, this felt both timely and encouraging.
The Antrobuses have a maid, Lily Sabina, who represents both the evil Lilith and the Sabine women carried off as sexual prey, although Wilder, most puritanical of authors, never made much of the sexual angle. Instead, Sabina is the comic servant and mistress of misrule. The playwright brings in any number of modern professions; four out of nine muses; such animals as the dinosaur, the mammoth, and the politician; Shriners and boardwalk chair pushers; a fortune teller, etc. We shuttle between Excelsior and the Atlantic City Boardwalk, radio broadcasts preempt the action, and a stage manager periodically stops the proceedings to remind us that all of life is theater.
I fondly recall the premiere production after well over half a century, with Fredric March, Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, Frances Heflin, and Florence Reed in the leads. There was only one ordinary performance, by the then?Mrs. Antrobus. In Central Park, conversely, the only outstanding performance is by Frances Conroy as Mrs. A. She offers the quintessential wife, mother, and American: faithful, maternal, and caring, yet also flusterable, giggly, and self-righteous – all that Wilder could have wished for.
John Goodman, as a portly George, cannot make us forget fat John. He also seems unsure of himself, or perhaps just sweaty under the collar in the hot summer air. He does not suggest the father of humankind or the inventor of the alphabet, mathematics, and the wheel, although he does convey a wheeling-dealing conventioneer (or “conveneer,” as Wilder mistakenly has it). Making the son Hispanic and the daughter black must have thrilled the director, Irene Lewis, but neither actor contributes much beyond that. Particularly disappointing is Kristen Johnston, of TV’s ghastly 3rd Rock From the Sun, whose Sabina is ungainly, uninventive, and unalluring. In the smaller roles, nobody registers at all.
Miss Lewis brings in a pair of mood-setting dancers and some up-to-date references, and turns the stage manager into a woman (Lola Pashalinski, of Ridiculous Theater Company fame, and indisputably ridiculous). But she has not made the goings-on involving, and has let the design team serve her poorly. Indeed, John Conklin’s semi-surreal, semi-mid-American scenery, though apt, is as unpleasurable as any I have ever seen. But the problem is largely the play: overambitious, strained, and quite dated. It straddles the legendary-historic and the folksy-facile uncomfortably, like an unlimber dancer struggling to recover from a split, and there is that goody-goody and ultimately condescending tone Wilder seldom quite avoids. His underlying problems were being an anti-intellectual intellectual and a closeted homosexual oozing Norman Rockwell values. He must have found himself confusing company.