Thornton Wilder is best remembered today for the novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and the play “Our Town,” both of which earned him Pulitzer Prizes.
But he also won a third Pulitzer for the wild “The Skin of Our Teeth,” playing in an expertly realized new production at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre through March 6.
With “Our Town,” Wilder had ripped down the “fourth wall” separating performers and audience, with the onstage character of the Stage Manager addressing the spectator directly. “The Skin of Our Teeth” amps up that convention considerably, with all the characters blending with fictionalized versions of the actors portraying them.
A performer stops the action to tell the audience she refuses to utter upcoming dialog because of a sensitive friend in the audience. Another apologizes for having to make cuts to the program because of an outbreak of ptomaine poisoning waylaying some of the cast.
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Further, those characters aren’t necessarily exactly the same people in each of the three acts. Except that they clearly are.
The original production opened on Broadway in 1942, featuring Fredric March, Tallulah Bankhead and a young Montgomery Clift — hardly an underground endeavor. The play demonstrates how daring midcentury pop art had become, before retreating into conservatism with the introduction of television.
The plot, inasmuch as it exists, tells a triptych of distantly-related allegories on the human condition. Act I is about man’s reaction to impending natural disaster. II looks at the intersection of law and family. III concerns war and its aftermath on relationships.
It’s unclear whether Carl Jung’s theories on the collective unconscious directly influenced Wilder’s depiction of his lead characters of Adam and Eve wrought as latter-day parents and leaders, but the early 20th century’s swirling revolutions in art and theory leave their mark on every molecule of “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
There could scarcely be a stronger cast in any city than the one assembled by director Bob Paisley for the MET production. Scott Cox’s theatrical bearing and booming voice lend an authority to his Mr. Antrobus, and they make his occasional glimmers of self-doubt and panic all the more effective.
Teri Adams (full disclosure: a good friend of mine in high school) plays Mrs. Antrobus as a realistic, maternal foil to her husband’s bombast. The first thing we learn about the character is that she would move heaven and earth to protect her children, and Adams demonstrates that protective instinct without telegraphing her actions showily.
The youthful Alice Pollack and Kyle Dyck both pull off the difficult task of making the largely unlikable Antrobus children compelling. Dyck’s work during a jarringly naturalistic moment in the play’s third act may be the acting highlight of the show.
Ellen Kirk smokes and fumes as the volatile vamp Sabina, also known as Lily Sabina, who is an embodiment of the villainous temptress Lilith of religious lore. She schemes and pouts to manipulate others, particularly Mr. Antrobus, and the part will understandably grate on some feminist sensibilities. Kirk wrings every nuance from the juicy role, and she’s clearly having a ball playing it.
Too many high school productions of “The Skin of Our Teeth” shove two sophomores into an unwieldy wooly mammoth suit and send them in front of overly-literal doorframes and muslin backdrops meant to give the illusion of the Antrobus family house or the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Happily, director Paisley uses MET’s storefront physical space to its greatest effect, letting Sarah White’s minimal set and a spare but clever uncredited lighting design blend perfectly with the play’s overt theatricality. In a room as low-tech as MET’s, less is always more. Shakespeare wrote for a bare stage, after all.
The pace is brisk, and each beat makes organic sense. Paisley is especially skilled at deploying the 14-person ensemble, which could get out of hand in such a small environment. The totally unnecessary and distracting recorded music that underscores a handful of scenes is the only misstep.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” isn’t for everybody. Its in-your-face self-consciousness will be too precious for those weary after these very meta past 30 years. Its unquestioning veneration of the patriarchal “great man” feels quaintly out of touch.
And while the everyman characters of “Our Town” allow viewers to project their own longings on the archetypal situations, the characters here are figures of legend and lore, on an unrelatable scale bigger than our everyday lives.
But it’s also a milestone in the 20th century theatrical canon. You won’t see another production as smartly realized and well acted as this one any time soon.
Derek Donovan: 816-234-4722