Ho, hum – that’s how we felt about Bart Sher’s The Skin of Our Teeth at the Intiman after we saw it last night. Nothing about the story, the language, or the production touched the slightest nerve in us. We were left wondering why Sher chose this play for the Intiman’s “to be announced later” production this season – and why we belatedly decided to buy tickets for it.
In prospect the idea seemed good – indeed, Sher’s promotion of the play at the season kickoff party convinced us to go. He claimed Thornton Wilder’s play was wildly experimental, an adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake for the American theater. From the preview I expected more an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, itself a kind of English adaptation of Joyce’s book, with an historical pageant at the center of it, and dreams of prehistory around – but what we found was something less than either.
I suppose the play must have had some moment when it was first produced in 1942, in the darker days of WW2. But to do it now shows Sher grasping after easy contemporary references – the war in Iraq, global climate change, hurricane Katrina maybe – while being tone deaf to the lack of any truly significant resonances. The play’s concerns don’t really speak to those of today, even if they seem somewhat similar.
Afterwards on the way back to the car, I remarked to my wife that the play was so lacking in dramatic effect, it made me question whether other Sher productions I’ve enjoyed – Cymbeline, The Three Sisters, Nickel and Dimed – owed their effect more to the material’s native quality than anything he added in choosing or directing it. The Skin of Our Teeth had his usual minimalist and schematic, yet mobile and colorful set design, innovative casting (here, the deaf actor Howie Seago signing his performance while other characters vocally interpret him, borrowed from his hero Peter Sellars’ storied staging of the Auletta/Sophocles Ajax), and punchy performances, especially from his wife Kristin Flanders and daughter, first grader Lucia Sher.
But like the punched-up Light in the Piazza we recently saw, or the Cymbeline where we’d first encountered his directorial proclivities and found them highly entertaining, if more or less vapid, here too Sher’s direction seemed – unlike his hero Sellars’s – not really conceptual, but simply unmotivated. Sher’s good at buffing up a play so that it keeps the audience entertained and awake – but not so good at doing so in a way that responds to the play’s actual significance, or the deepest resonances it could have with our current situation.
Such skills could be the foundation of a great success, however shallow, for Sher on Broadway, now that he’s getting commissions there. Here at the Intiman, quieter glimpses of meaning less obscured by the pomp and circumstance of a big show would be better suited to the kind of first-class local art theater it has, under Sher’s artistic direction, started to become.