Good news can come in any size; this week the theater gave me two specimens starkly contrasted in scale. To take the smaller one first: Will Eno’s Wakey Wakey, at the Signature, consists mostly of a guy named Guy (Michael Emerson), sitting in a wheelchair, which he apparently doesn’t need, chatting desultorily about life. Or sometimes chatting about his awareness that he’s chatting and we’re listening. Occasionally he clicks a remote, causing images to appear on a big screen above and to his right. Late in the 75-minute piece, a woman named Lisa (January LaVoy) joins him for some equally desultory, disconnected dialogue. At the end there’s a big cascade
of light-show effects, with bubbles and balloons; as you exit, you’re offered
fortune cookies, coffee cake, and figs.
It all sounds absurdly trivial and random, which is part of writer-director Eno’s intention. Many fears drive his boundless ambivalence about making theater: He doesn’t want to impose on us, to engage in fakery or emotional
manipulation. He’s anxious to keep us entertained while simultaneously tackling big, somber matters: Death, barely mentioned but constantly adumbrated, is Wakey Wakey‘s actual subject. And defiance is the flip side of Eno’s diffidence. He knows that his approach, resolutely shirking conventional expectations, will infuriate some theatergoers. His previous works in this gnomic vein (Thom Pain, Title and Deed) left me uninfuriated but also unenthusiastic. But Wakey Wakey‘s sharp writing, heightened by the easygoing asperity of Emerson’s
performance, stirs deeper feelings. Granted, the truth it conveys is small, rarefied, and overly hedged with decorative distractions. Even so, it’s genuine.
Onward to bigger things. Thornton Wilder wrote The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, when the world was a living hell and no one knew whether it would survive. Well, welcome to 2017. Our living hell is a more comfortably cushioned one, but this time around the worry over its survival stings more harshly, since the lunatic sits in the White House instead of the Reichskanzlei. Wilder, suddenly, has become a prophet again, searching for values that make humanity worth saving, in a world constantly on the verge of being destroyed either by pitiless nature or by human rage, selfishness, and folly.
An Absurdist joke, cheerfully cartooned over this abyss of terrors, Wilder’s comedy recounts three crises in the cozy suburban life of George and Maggie Antrobus (David Rasche and Kecia Lewis),
of Excelsior, New Jersey, and their kids Gladys (Kimber Monroe) and Henry (Reynaldo Piniella). Such nice people, you’d think, except that their older son, Abel, has mysteriously vanished, and when Henry’s hair is brushed back, his forehead displays a large red scar in the shape of a c. (The Antrobuses, who’ve been married at least five thousand years, used to be named Adam and Eva.) And then there’s
Sabina (Mary Wiseman),
the languidly self-centered,
perpetually pessimistic parlormaid whom Mr. Antrobus “raped home from [the]
Sabine hills” on a long-ago day that
Mrs. Antrobus would like to forget, just
as she’d like to forget that her precious Henry was once named Cain.
So your usual sitcom family this is not. For Wilder, the stereotypical American home seethes with Jungian undercurrents, mythic recollections of millennia past, always heaving upward to wreck its suburban coziness. First the Antrobus clan has to survive the Ice Age, taking in a crowd of refugees who include Moses, Homer, and the nine Muses. Next, when the “Ancient Order of Mammals” convenes in Atlantic City, the family’s forced to escape the Flood by clambering onto a convenient boat, taking along two of
every kind of beast. Finally they survive
a great war, which is somewhat trickier because Antrobus’s chief enemy, as you might have guessed, turns out to be Henry. Weary and battle-scarred, the family patches up a provisional peace
and moves on, guided by fragmentary recollections of the great philosophers and the music of the cosmos.
Dense-packed with ideas and allusions beneath its vaudevillian surface, Wilder’s text demands a directorial one-two punch — a joyous spirit that can sustain the superficial brightness while keeping a firm grasp on its dark underpinnings. Arin Arbus’s production, at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, gets more of both than I’ve experienced in any previous staging. Wiseman’s Sabina, veering frenetically from saucy smirk to panicked scream, takes ferocious charge of the fun department. Lewis and Rasche, an enchantingly improbable couple,
apply a deep, grounded acting power that makes the play’s somber side hit home through all the giddy clutter and clamor. These are two definitive performances, bolstered by subsidiary delights like Monroe’s sweetly offhand Gladys, César Alvarez’s vivid music, and Riccardo Hernandez’s flamboyantly changeable set.
Arbus sometimes wavers, for instance letting the noisy revelers steal focus from Mary Lou Rosato’s turn as the flood-predicting Fortune Teller. Lighting
designer Marcus Doshi’s resolutely gray postwar twilight diminishes the all-important climactic fight between Henry and his father. But these minor flaws shrink in the larger context: A big, important American play has been reawakened for a historical moment that desperately needs it. Complainers say that the implied values within Wilder’s structure are dated: the relegation of women to the maternal homemaker versus mistress/muse dichotomy, the notion of war as
Oedipal rivalry. But these aren’t Wilder’s concepts — they’re the ones he sees
humanity recapitulating blindly. How
we escape from them and move on is
the big, aching question he leaves unanswered.
Meantime, almost every second line in Skin of Our Teeth resonates for us, stuck in today’s impending disaster. A sample quote, from Antrobus’s final confrontation with Henry: “I shall continue fighting you until my last breath, as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself.” Sending that sentiment, on a postcard, to every Republican congressman might prove a useful action.
480 West 42nd Street
Through March 26
The Skin of Our Teeth
Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Through March 19