Mankind sure has been through a lot, haven’t we?
We made it through the Ice Age (kinda — just go with me on this), we survived the flood of all floods — and wars? Just try counting all the wars on your fingers and toes.
But why take it so seriously? The dinosaurs are coming, the apocalypse beacon’s been lit — but lighten up a bit, would ya?!
If you’ve never seen Thornton Wilder’s surreal, fourth-wall-breaking The Skin of Our Teeth, the Constellation Theatre Company is having a hoot and a holler with their production over at Source on 14th Street. Directed by Mary Hall Surface, the whole cast looks like they’re having a good time. That’s always a good thing, but never more so than with this show, which compresses human history into three acts of archetypal dramedy, like a thousand-scoop ice cream cone that by all accounts should topple over, yet somehow stays aloft.
The Antrobuses, of Excelsior, N.J., are your typical American family: Inventing the wheel, going to war with each other, having too much fun in Atlantic City. There’s Mr. Antrobus (Steven Carpenter), always planning improvements and advances, but volatile and easily distracted; Mrs. Antrobus (Lolita Marie), practical and resilient, with tunnel-vision about her family; violent young Cain errr, umm I mean Henry Antrobus (Dallas Tolentino); and daughter Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese), eager to please and absorbing all she sees. Reigning over it all — and repeatedly “breaking character” to share her thoughts with the audience — is Sabina (Tonya Beckman), the family’s maid, temptress and fool.
If all of this sounds more than a little weird, you’re right: it is. It’s a story that keeps one foot firmly planted in “Signs and Signals” while the other treats these five as real people. And it doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. Our guide Sabina tells you right in her opening monologue: “I hate this play and every word in it.”
“As for me, I don’t understand a single word of it, anyway,” she adds. The house lights come up as she abandons her feather-dusting. “All about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you.”
Beckman has Sabina’s emotions just right, and she knows when to draw the audience in and push them away. Marie and Carpenter, too, fit their roles like gloves, brimming with humanity even when they’re more Man and Woman than a man and a woman.
The kids do everything expected of them, which isn’t as much as it could be, frankly. Wilder poured more personality into (and had more love for) the younger generation in Grover’s Corner.
The ensemble all does fine work, but a particular shout-out to Lilian Oben, also great in Constellation’s Arabian Nights last year, whose turn as the fortuneteller is a highlight.
In its unsentimental celebration of the human spirit, Skin of Our Teeth is a great fit for Constellation in every way but one: physically. The set feels not so much constrained by Source’s black box space as broken by it, like we’re only seeing the pieces that could fit. The New Jersey boardwalk in particular felt phoned-in.
Lights and sound cues were a little rough opening week — and actors did stumble more than once on their lines — but these are temporary issues no doubt resolved by the time you read this.
Smooth sailing already? Frank Labovitz’s costumes and Matthew Aldwin McGee’s puppets, both beyond reproach.
If you’ve never seen a production of Skin of Our Teeth, this would be a great introduction. If have and you love it, this one won’t let you down. If you hate the show … well, then, you’re wrong. The whole world is at six’s and seven’s.