Apocalypse Then

Thornton Wilder rehearses the end of the world


The Skin of Our Teeth, which Thornton Wilder began writing right after Pearl Harbor and brought to Broadway (and a Pulitzer Prize) barely a year later, is set in a past that is already the future, its focus unwaveringly on the end of the world. Over three acts we witness an advancing glacier, a 40-day hurricane, a seven-year war. The matter-of-fact, casual style, with a central character consistently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, belies the play’s serious themes, its deeply religious sensibility. On the huge stage of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, it contains multitudes and spills out into the house, delighting the masked crowds that flock to the theater as they might to church after a long, long drought. 

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz, making her Broadway debut after a raft of downtown successes, has cast this revival with a diverse group of mostly Black actors, including Roslyn Ruff as Mrs. Antrobus, the quintessential mid-century wife and mother (who might be channeling Michelle Obama), and Gabby Beans as the bratty, seductive family maid Sabina, who keeps breaking character to speak to us in her own voice (that is to say, the voice of actor Latasha Somerset) but otherwise channels Eartha Kitt. James Vincent Meredith plays George Antrobus, the quintessential type-A paterfamilias with a squishy center, who, as the glacier bears down on the mid-Atlantic, telegraphs from his office in Manhattan: “Burn everything except the Shakespeare.” He’s a kind of mad inventor, finishing up the wheel, the alphabet, the numbers up to 100—pretty basic stuff. His son bears the mark of Cain. His daughter flirts with everyone and winds up … well, let me not spoil everything.

Underlying the suburban chit-chat are biblical parables: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark. Grade-school kids as well as urban sophisticates will have fun with this show (a perennial favorite, like Wilder’s Our Town, of high-school theater groups). Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the award-winning Black playwright, has laced the 80-year-old script with contemporary references particular to Black culture.  Playwright Wilder, who stood astride American culture for half a century, was a disciple of Gertrude Stein, and Skin of Our Teeth’s structure wobbles and doubles back on itself like the best of Stein’s modernist work.

The play opens in an Ice Age, in a huge and handsome ranch house in Excelsior, New Jersey, large enough to contain the family pets—an enormous dinosaur (ably managed by a trio of puppeteers) and a mammoth—as well as a  score of refugees. Adam Rigg’s wonky set pulses and breathes as apocalyptic events transpire within it; Montana Levi Blanco dresses the actors appropriately for their world-historical tasks.

The production is thrilling, and it’s what we need now. With a running time of nearly three hours and a cast of 28 playing figures as diverse as Homer (chanting in Greek) and a bingo hostess (the eternal temptress, intent on stealing the play’s alpha male from his spouse of 5,000 years), it asks a lot of our beleaguered attention spans. Although “Enjoy yourselves” is its slogan, eschatology is its subject and bright entertainment its primary style—until the final act, when the landscape becomes unremittingly bleak. Gabby Beans, who in the first two acts plays the family’s maid and the bingo hostess, simpers and sucks up and suffers through two millennia of disasters, but by the end has grown up, survived a war as a camp follower, and perhaps at last been called upon to use her moral compass.  

In Act III, George and Maggie Antrobus—survivors of the whole failed human experiment, companions on the sofa, married for all eternity—take solace in philosophy and literature, which echo in lines from bell hooks, Spinoza, Maya Angelou, the Bible, Lao Tzu. It’s the strangest 11 o’clock number in the history of theater, and the perfect mirror of our fraught moment. Catch it while you can.   ❖

The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through May 29