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Theater Review

In Wilder's World, the Ice Age Cometh

Back in Glendale, A Noise Within settles in with a cozy staging of 'The Skin of Our Teeth.'

November 22, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Writers write under the influence, drunk on the literature they love. In his varied career as a playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder once taught comparative literature at the university level. He went on to become the 20th century American stage's unofficial comp-lit instructor, whose tastes ranged from Henrik Ibsen to Gertrude Stein to James Joyce.

Nothing Wilder ever concocted for the stage bubbled with more detectable and delectable influences of work he loved--heavy on Joyce's "Finnegans Wake"--than "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942).

The play marks the return to Glendale of the classical company A Noise Within, after a rocky year working out of Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Theatre. For the next season or two, A Noise Within is back in its cozy space in the Masonic Temple building on Brand Boulevard.

It's fun to see "The Skin of Our Teeth," a big, goofy, messy thing, in close quarters. Wilder's conceits--mammoths coexist in this universe with biblical figures and a Shriner or two--land right in your lap here. The production is modest and enjoyable, with an especially deft performance from company regular Mitchell Edmonds--he of the eyebrows that deserve separate billing--as Mr. Antrobus.

Antrobus is not just Everyman, but as Wilder has it, Everyman in Everytime and Everyplace. Wilder borrowed the play's elastic notion of time from "Finnegans Wake." From one angle, the Antrobus clan of Excelsior, N.J., is a typical American family circa '42: Dad goes to the office, mom organizes committees and runs the house, the kids Gladys and Henry are, well, the kids. Henry's real name is Cain, however, and he has a lethal way with a slingshot.

Outside the family home, chaos. A new Ice Age threatens. The family pets are a cuddly dinosaur and mammoth, complaining about the cold. The maid, Sabina, was ravaged and kidnapped by Antrobus.

She's a Sabine woman, yet she's also an actress stuck inside a play she doesn't like. Early on, when someone in Wilder's expository setup misses a cue, the actress playing Sabina (Jill Hill) launches into a tirade against the crazy historical saga she's performing. Antrobus plays many parts himself, including Noah; Act 2 concludes with a flood. In Act 3, the spirit of world war hangs heavy over the proceedings, father pitted against son in humankind's latest excuse for a big military-industrial complex.

Some of Wilder's notions rest right on the edge of treacle. The mass of refugees in Act 1 seeking shelter includes Moses and Homer; the philosophers of Act 3 perch on ladders, shining their beacons of knowledge for Antrobus' sake. Yet Wilder punctures his own highhanded literary flourishes with a self-mocking streak. Of all the World War II-era pageants to play Broadway--and few have been revived much since--"The Skin of Our Teeth" (its title taken from a Union army colonel's description of a narrow escape at Gettysburg) best captures a spirit of resilience without falling prey to jingoism.

Directors Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott keep the pacing pleasantly brisk, the tone light. (When Robert Woodruff staged the play years ago for the Guthrie Theater, he amped up the grunge and alienation effects to 11.) Too light here? Probably. All that whimsy needs a grounding wire. The Elliotts seem somewhat timid regarding the play's serious junctures. Example: When Mrs. Antrobus (Deborah Strang) cries out the name "Cain!" when the floods come, it can be rattlingly effective in performance. Here, the moment's slighted.

Edmonds' Antrobus nails those mood swings. He's all hail-fellow heartiness one minute ("How's the whole crooked family?") and existential gloom the next ("What, another calamity?"). He makes Antrobus' dark moments very affecting, yet he's an unfussy actor with a keen ability to keep the momentum of a given scene going. (Hill's Sabina is fairly accomplished but rather strident.) Up there with Edmonds, Anna C. Miller as the Fortune Teller brings a sense of both gravity and dry comedy to the carnival.

You wouldn't mind a scenic surprise or two, or less canned-sounding prerecorded original music, or a little more craziness in the convention sequence. But at its best there's a sweetness to this staging--a sophisticated brand of naivete nicely in sync with Wilder's own.

* "The Skin of Our Teeth," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., downtown Glendale. Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.; Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 8 p.m.; Dec. 2, 2 and 8 p.m.; Dec. 10, 2 and 7 p.m.; Dec. 13-14, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 14. $22-$30. (323) 953-7795. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Mitchell Edmonds: Mr. Antrobus

Deborah Strang: Mrs. Antrobus

Jill Hill: Sabina

Dena DeCola: Gladys

Michael Louden: Henry

Anna C. Miller: Fortune Teller

Apollo Dukakis: Stage Manager

Written by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Scenic design by Michael C. Smith. Costumes by Angela Balogh Calin. Lighting by Ken Booth. Music by Norman L. Berman. Stage manager Tricia Druliner.

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