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Cast scores points for its enthusiasm

This 'Skin of Our Teeth' revival manages to overcome the play's inherent eccentricities.

August 21, 2003|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Unbridled pep fuels "The Skin of Our Teeth," now closing Theatricum Botanicum's 30th anniversary summer repertory season in Topanga. Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning satirical allegory receives a romping revival whose enthusiasm overrides its idiosyncrasies.

When Wilder began "Skin" in 1940, World War II hadn't reached America, but it certainly had by the play's 1942 New Haven premiere. Despite the stature of Wilder, director Elia Kazan and a cast led by Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and Montgomery Clift, walkouts abounded, which repeated throughout the tempestuous Broadway run. Postwar Europe was far more receptive, as in Laurence Olivier's celebrated 1945 London premiere with Vivien Leigh, or the German-language debut in Darmstadt's ruins.

It took American regional theater -- where "Skin" remains a repertory staple -- to establish the play here as the visionary classic it always was. In three calibrated acts, Wilder presents humankind's hapless endurance through experimental techniques that were revolutionary in the commercial arena.

Act 1 depicts the Ice Age as daft surrealist vaudeville; Act 2 stirs Noah's flood and the Lilith legend into sexual-political burlesque; and the stark post-apocalyptic Act 3 ends with everything rebooting, like Wilder's inspiration, James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake."

Director Ellen Geer negotiates the lush open-air venue with assurance, aided by effective, unpretentious designs by Marianne Parker (costumes), Joe Morrissey (lighting) and Susan Mundell (sound).

The large troupe is wholly competent, starting with Melora Marshall's priceless, Swoosie Kurtz-tinged turn as pragmatic temptress Sabina. Earnestine Phillips' Caribbean-voiced fortuneteller is tickling and Katherine Griffith finds rich shadings in Mrs. Antrobus (the former Eve), though Willow Geer's crowd-pleasing Gladys lacks grim nuance. This is a recurring discrepancy. Reconfiguring the uncut text into two parts taxes the gluteus muscles and muddies stylistic progression, favoring goofy effusion over avant-garde darkness, thus obscuring the stakes.

Such top-heavy, fluffy demarcation hinders Alan Blumenfeld's outsized Mr. Antrobus (born Adam) and Jeff Wiesen's inexplicably mild Henry (alias Cain). Their climactic Act 3 clash, written as jarring Pirandellian meltdown, plays as sitcom tomfoolery, devoid of menace.

Still, audiences who resisted Stefan Novinski's audacious recent Evidence Room deconstruction will doubtless appreciate Geer's madcap mammals, and families should flock; devotees demanding more bite from their "Teeth" must prepare to forbear or forswear.


'The Skin of Our Teeth'

Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: Saturdays, 8 p.m. through Sept. 27; also Sundays, 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 31; Fridays, 8 p.m. from Sept. 5 to 26; Sundays, 3 p.m. from Oct. 5 to 19

Ends: Oct. 19

Price: $14-$22

Info: (310) 455-3723

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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