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The Skin of Our Teeth Review

November 10, 2019 | By Calvary Dominique

If all your brain cells were to suddenly hop out of your brain, brazenly enter the world of theater, and unload all their chaotic, scattered energy into a play, it might look a little something like this. Or, if you gave a mysterious existentialist kid — like one of the children in J.D. Salinger’s short stories — a canvas and told them to paint a play based on all of their inner anxieties, you might come close to describing this. Close, but not quite; for as an approximation, it would still fall short of capturing the full extent of its essence. This play is just one of those things you have to experience to believe, and even when you see it, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Wait, what did I just see?”

In late October, Northeastern University's theater department ran The Skin of Our Teeth, a delightfully bizarre, hysterical, and timeless play written by Thorton Wilder in 1942. If you came into the theater expecting a linear, run-of-the-mill play, I am sincerely sorry. But if you came into the theater expecting a wild, surrealist rollercoaster ride, it certainly didn’t disappoint! Creative, irreverent, and utterly brilliant, the play works because it fully embraces its subversive absurdism and holds nothing back.

Photo Courtesy of Lauren Scornavacca

When Wilder initially created his Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece, he crafted it in the context of a world torn apart by World War II, but the questions he raised are still eerily relevant today. Though almost 80 years old, its sarcastic and satirical style seems tailor-made for both the 21st century and Generation Z. 

The Skin of Our Teeth chronicles the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Matthew Hosking and Thedita Pedersen, respectively), a suburban couple from New Jersey who have been married for 5,000 years; their son Henry (Ben Harris), who may have murdered his brother; and Gladys (Elise Piliponis), their “perfect” daughter. Throughout the play, they face the Ice Age, a Great Flood, and the encroaching apocalypse.

You know, just casual suburban life. Their kids have dinosaurs for pets. There’s a mammoth in there somewhere. Oh, and a fortune teller who enjoys himself way too much and who tells the audience that interpreting the past is impossible but interpreting the future is his specialty (Erin Solomon). And there’s Sabina (Meryl Prendergast), the family’s loquacious and fourth wall-breaking maid who attempts to seduce Mr. Antrobus, now the president of the Fraternal Order of Mammals, away from his wife. If that sounds confusing, that’s kind of the point. So much is going on! It just might be one of the most peculiar, offbeat things I’ve ever seen, and it was all by design. It’s like The Flintstones if it were existentialist, meta, and written by Bo Burnham.

Along the way, the Antrobuses create the alphabet, throw a cosmic beauty pageant, and even invent math. Somehow, through the chaos, this zany family always manages to make it through… by the skin of their teeth. You never knew what was coming next. At one point, audience members were directly asked to give up their chairs, but no one moved. At a few points in the story, Sabina, who was very aware she was in a play, told the audience she was quitting — only to have the stage managers come on stage and coax her into continuing. This play covers themes of climate change, religion, sexuality, female empowerment, psychology, philosophy, and more.

The Skin of Our Teeth is genuinely entertaining theater, and you truly connect to the characters and want what is best for them — especially once you accept its unconventional storytelling methods. It’s very much a thinking play, and very much open to interpretation, which is what makes it so timeless and beautiful. It asks bold questions that don’t necessarily have concrete answers. What does it really mean to be a family? To be a husband? To be a wife? To be human? Famed playwright Paula Vogel once called The Skin of Our Teeth “a remarkable gift to an America entrenched in catastrophe,” and it is incredibly accurate.

As Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour said in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.” This quote can just as easily apply to the real world and to the human experience throughout the ages. Feelings of chaos, uncertainty, and fear were just as keenly felt in 1942 as in 2019. But we’ve always managed to survive, if only by the skin of our teeth.