I was 15 when I appeared in a camp production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” — I mean “camp” in the sense of a summer sleep-away experience, though the other meaning may apply too. What, after all, were a bunch of naïve teenagers doing in this surreal, existential tragicomedy by the author of “Our Town,” with its mash-up of biblical revisionism, theatrical satire and apocalyptic escapades?
We were reviving it, I guess; “The Skin of Our Teeth” had premiered more than 30 years earlier, in 1942. Even though the summer production was a low moment in its history, the world does not end with us, as Wilder shows in his story of the Antrobus family, which continues through the ages, the world keeps turning and its central stories return.
So, this spring, will “The Skin of Our Teeth” — and it won’t be alone. Broadway will also offer revivals of four other plays, each from a different decade: “Plaza Suite” from the ’60s, “American Buffalo” from the ’70s, “How I Learned to Drive” from the ’90s and “Take Me Out” from the aughts. Of course, revivals are always a part of the Broadway mix but, taken together, this year’s constitute an especially vivid time capsule of our theater over the last 80 years. They provide a glimpse into the world they came from, as well as a glimpse into ours.
That double vision will be explicit in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Connecting its theme of survival despite near-extinction to the Black experience, Blain-Cruz has assembled a cast — including James Vincent Meredith, Roslyn Ruff, Gabby Beans and Priscilla Lopez — that “embodies the complexity that is America,” she says.
The play is welcoming and models this complexity. Written during World War II it reflects both tragedy and style. The Antrobuses face a time of collapse. They live in 20th-century New Jersey but are at risk from war, flooding, and an ice sheet from the Pleistocene. Among the roles are the poet Homer, a mastodon, the biblical Cain — and the actress playing the maid, who keeps breaking character.
With the major exception of Edward Albee, Broadway dramatists did not much take up Wilder’s surrealistic thread in the next few decades. The ’50s were dominated by “problem plays,” generally naturalistic and narrowly pointed. (A very fine one, “Trouble in Mind,” from 1955, was revived earlier this season.) The ’60s brought us, among other trends, the middle-class urban comedy of which Neil Simon was the leading proponent.
If his earlier shows of that era — including “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park” and the musical “Sweet Charity” — deal in one way or another with the foreshocks of women’s liberation and sexual revolution, surely the most Simony of Simon’s ’60s hits is “Plaza Suite.” By 1968, when it opened, the earthquake was in full tremor.
As if to acknowledge the size of the change, Simon wrote what are basically three unrelated one-act plays about marriage, connected only by their setting — room 719 of the title hotel — and the stars who take the leads in each. In this season’s revival, directed by John Benjamin Hickey, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker play, in turn, a couple attempting a second honeymoon, a movie producer wooing a now-married ex and, in the farce finale, the parents of a bride who has locked herself in the bathroom.
Though “Plaza Suite” is a play about sour relationships between men and women, it could still, in the ’60s, be a comedy. Just seven years later, and yet an epoch, David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” demonstrated that comedy was at best a sugarcoating on tragedy. In this it was strongly influenced by a new breed of movies, including “Mean Streets,” “Chinatown” and “The Godfather,” that in the early ’70s had come to dominate cultural expression with their focus on criminal psychopathology.
For “American Buffalo,” which opened on Broadway in 1977, Mamet devised a theatrical equivalent to the harshly evocative visuals of those films. It’s the language of dominance that gives depth to his characters: a junk shop owner, his poker buddy and a dim assistant. (In this season’s revival, directed by Neil Pepe, they are played by Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss.) Mamet gives their pettiness an almost Shakespearean grandeur as he employs a vulgar dialect that sounds like a blank verse after a year in a sewer.
For all its linguistic invention, there’s nothing formally unconventional about “American Buffalo”; in fact, it’s almost classical. The topic is not new. In the following decades, playwrights were able, in part, to put previously taboo subjects on the stage without sensationalizing them. At the same time, the naturalism that had dominated mainstream American theater since the ’50s began to loosen its grip.
“How I Learned to Drive,” by Paula Vogel, exemplifies both parts of that change. Its subject is the sexual molestation, starting at age 11, of a girl called Li’l Bit by her Uncle Peck. From there the play reaches out in many unexpected directions, including Li’l Bit’s ambivalence about (and her family’s complicity in) the abuse. These shocking facts are still shocking today.
It is also narratively original, drawing elements from all the theatrical movements that preceded it. Explicitly acknowledging its own form, as “The Skin of Our Teeth” did, it is narrated by Li’l Bit as a memory, yet the sequence is nonchronological; a Greek chorus comments on the action and plays the secondary roles. The connections between scenes are the kind of connections you find in dreams, not in straight lines.
One result of that ethereal quality is that “How I Learned to Drive” resists conclusions, leaving it open to reinvention. You can imagine the roles being played by anyone, regardless even of age — and indeed, this spring’s production reassembles the director (Mark Brokaw) and stars (Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse) of the play’s 1997 premiere. How will a story on the meaning of maturity change now its leading actors have aged 25?
“How I Learned to Drive” is the only one of this season’s revivals that has not previously appeared on Broadway. It was originally performed Off Broadway at Vineyard Theater. Yet it’s undoubtedly a classic; a commercial production will not be the test of its longevity. But for newer works, like Richard Greenberg’s 2002 “Take Me Out,” a first Broadway revival is in part a chance to see if there is likely to be a second.
The play is, for the sake of relevance, still more relevant than one might think. It concerns the effects of a team like the Yankees’ gay star player, Darren Lemming. Note that it wasn’t until September that Bryan Ruby became the first active professional baseball player to do this in real life.
But unlike gay plays of an earlier vintage, “Take Me Out” is not concerned with earning sympathy. It is interested in the sport itself and how it inspires others. The locker-room drama (one teammate is a vicious homophobe) is balanced by the drama of intense fandom, as Lemming’s nebbishy gay accountant, Mason Marzac, becomes obsessed with the game.
I’m eager to see whether the Second Stage Theater production — directed by Scott Ellis and starring Jesse Williams as Lemming and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Marzac — puts “Take Me Out” onto a new footing. To last like “The Skin of Our Teeth,” identity-based plays have to prove they have something to say once the identity issues are moot.
This is an example: While few of us have any stake in the succession struggles in 11th-century Scotland’s future, we still queue up to see a 500 year-old play about them. Indeed, “Macbeth” — starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga — is also being revived this spring.