In the heat of summer nights that lend yet another layer of surrealism to a play whose first act is set in an ice age, the Public Theater’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is unfolding in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater like a mad, marvelous fever dream, in which the most profound and painful truths about humanity are tossed about with absurd insouciance, and the grotesque and comic, ever-evolving and ever-repeating history of the race is both carnival sideshow and philosophical epic.
Beginning with a boogie-woogie pas de deux danced to the appropriate strains of “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize winner is here given a bright, busy production by director Irene Lewis that honors the spirit of immediacy the playwright intended. It’s an inspired choice for the Delacorte. What better place to ponder the elementals of human history than an auditorium that leaves us exposed to the elements? Above the noise of the show can be heard the faint hum of city sounds, the soundtrack of the civilization being lovingly lampooned before you. And that moisture on John Goodman’s brow is no distraction — it’s the sweat of man’s eternal toiling. Those bugs flitting in and out of the stage lights — locusts, perhaps?
Goodman is Wilder’s Everyman, George Antrobus, inventor of the wheel, discoverer of the alphabet and humble 1940s family man. At home in the suburb of Excelsior, N.J., with handy access to public school and church, and a great view of the impending apocalypse, George and his nuclear family — wife Maggie (Frances Conroy) and kids Gladys (Brienen Bryant) and Henry (John Ortiz), formerly known as Cain — await the advanc-ing glacier with their neighborhood dinosaur while carrying on as best they can.
But it’s the family’s voluptuous maid Sabina, eternal femme fatale and supervixen, who sets Wilder’s circus in perpetual motion. “3rd Rock From the Sun” star Kristen Johnston, whose voice has a touch of the dry, wry rasp of the part’s creator, Tallulah Bankhead, delivers this very philosophical maid’s musings with knockabout panache. “We came through the depression by the skin of our teeth. One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?” wonders Sabina in her opening monologue, and when her query fails to cue an actor’s entrance, Johnston delivers the first of Wilder’s fourth-wall-demolishing diatribes with robust belligerence. “Why couldn’t I be in ‘Twelfth Night,’ indoors?” she rants, in an interpolated reference to the star-studded Lincoln Center production blocks away.
In opposition to Johnston’s bewitching Sabina is Conroy’s finely articulated turn as Maggie Antrobus, the Mother of all Mothers. Conroy’s performance, full of emotional texture and quiet gracefulness, is the anchor of the play’s second act, set in Atlantic City, where Antrobus and family are vacationing at a convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, of which George is newly elected president. Her awkwardness and humility when delivering an address to the convention is priceless — the way she enunci-ates the phrase “the tomato is edible” is a delight in itself. And when Conroy exudes sad resignation as Maggie finally realizes her husband’s infidelity, it’s heartbreaking.
Wilder, writing in the darkness of a world at war for the second time in the span of a generation, was attuned to man’s blackest impulses and direst predicaments, as well as his instinctive will to live and its emotional expression, hope. And so in three acts, George Antrobus and clan face a trio of calamities — that big iceberg, the flood and a seven-year world war — and somehow come through with spirits more or less intact.
In dialogue sometimes satiric and sometimes nakedly truthful, Wilder shows mankind’s most atavistic impulses doing battle down through the ages: George wants to feed the starving masses lining up outside the family’s door, while his wife can think only of her children; George’s civilizing inventions are at odds with his son’s anarchic desires; George’s love for wife and family is in opposition to his yen for sexual freedom; and for Sabina, hope gives way to nihilism one minute, and the process is reversed the next.
Mixed in with the loopy plot are passages of intense beauty that cut to the heart, and they’re delivered here with a winning grab bag of styles: by Novella Nelson, as the fortune teller, with the commanding air of a rapper; by Conroy with tenderness; by Johnston with Sabina’s strange mixture of cynicism and naivete; by Goodman with offhand heartiness (although he never quite convinces as a man thirsty for knowledge; back from the war, he seems more likely to look for the remote control than his beloved tomes).
Lewis keeps the circus in constant, comic motion on John Conklin’s set, which piles a jumble of chintz-and-Americana furnishings on a giant, pea green game board. And Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bright lights splash across it in big bursts of hot colors.
Yet the play’s eternal truths glimmer through the burlesque trappings with all their homely beauty intact. “I’ve never forgotten for long at a time that living is struggle,” says George at the close, back at home in Excelsior. “I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for… All I ask is a chance to build new worlds, and God has always given us that.”
Wilder designed “The Skin of Our Teeth” to unfold as if it was being built anew before each audience, and written again every day. And of course it is: Every day men are leaving their wives for younger women, inventions we couldn’t live without — that indispensable Internet! — are being invented, and always, somewhere on our benighted planet, World War II is taking place again. Now as much as ever, the apocalypse is always upon us, and people are always muddling through.