Fort Greene

Bitingly funny ‘Skin of Our Teeth’ at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center

March 1, 2017 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
There's a dino-mite new production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. A dinosaur, at left, played by Fred Epstein, shares a moment with Mr. Antrobus, center, played by David Rasche, and a mammoth, at right, played by Eric Farber. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

That’s a dinosaur in the Antrobus family’s living room, with a woolly mammoth by its side.

The dinosaur is nattily dressed in a suit that looks like it’s straight out of a colorized Turner Classic Movie.

The Ice Age has arrived —in suburban Excelsior, New Jersey.

Have you seen “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which 20th-century literary titan Thornton Wilder wrote right before the United States entered World War II?

It’s a wild allegory, for which Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s the only author to be awarded Pulitzers as both a playwright and a novelist, by the way.

There hasn’t been a major production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” in New York City since 1998. Luckily for us, Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) is presenting a terrific new version of this thought-provoking, thoroughly entertaining work at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the group’s Brooklyn Cultural District playhouse.

TFANA’s founding artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz, chose it for this season’s lineup before Donald Trump was elected president. Smart move.

The play is about humanity — in the persons of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, their children and their maid, Sabina — surviving crisis, calamity and craziness. How timely.

The high-energy production will sweep you up and carry you away  — just like the Great Flood, which is another calamity that threatens the characters.

In the play’s three acts, it’s the end of the world as we know it, to borrow a line from a song by R.E.M., again and again and again.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” is directed by Arin Arbus, who is TFANA’s associate artistic director. Last season, she helmed TFANA’s repertory run of “A Doll’s House” versus “The Father,” Ibsen’s and Strindberg’s dueling plays. She used Wilder’s adaptation of “A Doll’s House.”

Arbus does a dynamite job with “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a complicated work that’s dark, full of laughter and punctuated by flashes of hope.

Maybe that adjective should be spelled “dino-mite” in honor of the Antrobus family’s pet dinosaur, played hilariously by Fred Epstein. He and their pet mammoth, the equally hilarious Eric Farber, wear giant animal heads and make endearing little noises to do most of their communicating.

‘Lolita’ sunglasses and a big problem borrowed from the Bible

“The Skin of Our Teeth” has a 35-member cast — bravo for this talented group. It’s led by Kecia Lewis as Mrs. Antrobus, David Rasche as Mr. Antrobus and Mary Wiseman as Sabina.

There are so many reasons to love this new production. Where to begin?

Maybe with Wiseman, who made her Broadway debut in “Thérèse Raquin,” in which Keira Knightley starred. Wiseman appeared in TFANA’s stellar 2015 production of “An Octoroon,” a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

She plays Sabina as a sardonic sexpot and calculating coquette who at one point in the play wears heart-shaped sunglasses like Lolita does in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

Wiseman keeps the audience laughing — and carries out what could be a tricky task with superb skill. Again and again, Wilder’s script requires her to fall out of character and pretend to be herself, an actress who says she hates the play and doesn’t understand it. She refuses to do one of the scenes — even when Fitzpatrick the stage manager (played perfectly by William Youmans) threatens to read her lines for her.  

Lewis is another reason to love the play.

The Broadway veteran is a magnetic presence on Polonsky Shakespeare Center’s stage as Mrs. Antrobus, a stern and selfless matriarch who puts family first.

At the end of Act 1, Lewis sings the solo part in one of the songs written for this production by César Alvarez, “There’s Only What I Know.”

What a voice she’s got. She played Effie in the original Broadway company of “Dreamgirls.”

Recent roles include Sister Rosetta Tharpe in “Marie and Rosetta” and the title character in “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

Alvarez’s music, by the way, is another reason to love “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

Yet another reason is Rasche, who plays Mr. Antrobus. He vividly brings to life a character who’s by turns big-hearted, book-loving and full of himself. He’s got an awful problem with one of his kids, which is borrowed from the Bible. When you see the play, you’ll figure out pretty fast what’s wrong.

In Act II, Mr. Antrobus delivers a perfect parody of a politician’s speech because he has been elected president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans.

Fans of the TV series “Veep” have seen him play the politician. He’s a John Boehner-like Speaker of the House on the show.

Rasche is probably best known for his lead role on the 1980s cop-show parody “Sledge Hammer!” His films include “Burn After Reading” and “Men in Black 3.”

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“The Skin of Our Teeth” runs through March 19 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

The playhouse is at 262 Ashland Place in the Brooklyn Cultural District.

Tickets are available online at tfana.org or by phone at 866-811-4111.