No fossil evidence suggests that a giant ground sloth ever composed a symphony or that a Devonian fish split the atom even once. And yet, have human beings really proved their worth? We have brought the world calculus, the sonnet, no-knead bread. But think of what we have inflicted: environmental devastation, species collapse, atrocities of various complexions. Humans keep surviving. We’re fit that way. But when you think about it — should we?
Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a formally inventive, constitutionally melancholy Pulitzer Prize winner from 1942, usually ticks the box for yes. An antic ode to human resilience, written as America was entering World War II, it follows the Antrobus family as they face down an ice age, a deluge and a very human catastrophe. Somehow, they always come through.
“We’ve come a long ways,” George Antrobus, the dad, says. “We’ve learned. We’re learning. And the steps of our journey are marked for us here.”
And yet the revival that opened at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on Monday, which is to say somewhere in the mid-Anthropocene, isn’t so sure. Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s gorgeous, restive direction, this production sides not so much with George, the inventor of the wheel and alphabet, but with Sabina, the Antrobuses’ vampy maid, who maintains a healthy skepticism toward the whole of the human race.
“I used to think something could be done about it,” Sabina says. “But I know better now.”
We meet Sabina at the top of the play, in the living room of the Antrobus family’s flower-bedizened home in Excelsior, N.J. (The exuberant design, by Adam Rigg, with radiant lighting by Yi Zhao and climate-disaster projections by Hannah Wasileski, suggests a midcentury postmodern aesthetic.) She resents her work as a maid, and because Wilder never met a fourth wall he couldn’t smash, she resents the play, too.
“I hate this play and every word in it,” she says, before throwing down her duster like a mic drop. Sabina is played by Gabby Beans (“Marys Seacole,” “Anatomy of a Suicide”), a ferocious actress and a Blain-Cruz regular who demonstrates her comic gifts here. Those gifts are ample. And they come beribboned and frilled.
She and Maggie Antrobus (Roslyn Ruff, eternally excellent) await the return of George (James Vincent Meredith, solid), commuting home from the office as an ice sheet descends on the Eastern Seaboard. (It’s the 1940s, but as the pet dinosaur and mammoth suggest, it’s also the Cretaceous period. Or possibly the Paleolithic. Just go with it.) In the second act, set in Atlantic City, the Antrobuses have survived, only to encounter a Genesis-style flood. The final act shows them and their children, Henry (Julian Robertson), who used to be called Cain, and Gladys (Paige Gilbert), back in Edison, picking themselves up after a seven-year war.
In most productions, the particular conflict is left ambiguous; here Montana Levi Blanco’s shrewd costumes intimate that this is the Civil War. And in most productions, the Antrobuses are white, but here they are Black, which lends that choice particular resonance, twisting the knife of human cruelty. This strategy doesn’t warp the play so much as deepen it. (The playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has contributed just a few lines — trading a reference to the Broadway classic “Peg O’ My Heart” for a shout-out to “Bootycandy” — to make all of this work.)
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is a big play. It has to be. The whole of humanity doesn’t fit tidily into three acts, even assuming as much frame-breaking foolery as Wilder allows. In Blain-Cruz’s maximalist hands, it gets even bigger, the stage overflowing with flowers and lights and dazzling, playful puppetry. She favors a high femme aesthetic — luxuriant, Instagrammable — and no other serious director working now has such a profound interest in visual pleasure and delight. She also has a killer playlist (Rihanna, Dua Lipa). Because this is the way the world ends: all bangers, no skips.
For some, this too muchness, married to Wilder’s bookish mischief, will pall. The intermission doesn’t come until nearly two hours in, and as I walked out into the lobby, an usher asked me if I planned on leaving. Apparently a lot of people do. But if you stick it out, you can find real power in the way the lush design garlands a profound suspicion of human endeavor. Blain-Cruz relegates Wilder’s emphasis on endurance for something more questioning, mostly by giving space to the questions that are already there.
“How do we know that it’ll be any better than before?” Sabina asks, as humanity prepares to pick itself back up again. “Why do we go on pretending?”
When the curtain rises on the third act, the furniture lies ruined. But the natural world has revived. The stage blooms with a thousand flowers, and when characters traverse that meadow, it feels like a dream. Do we really want to wake from it? When “The Skin of Our Teeth” first opened, in 1942, the world wobbled on the threshold of disaster. Now, it seems, we are wobbling again. Maybe it always seems that way. Human life could continue indefinitely. Or the end of the Anthropocene might be nigher than you think. And that would be terrible, wouldn’t it? But look how the flowers grow.
The Skin of Our Teeth
Through May 29 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan; lct.org. Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes.
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