Among American plays ranked as classics, "The Skin of Our Teeth" is an odd duck, the object of veneration and head-scratching since its 1943 debut.

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Among American plays ranked as classics, “The Skin of Our Teeth” is an odd duck, the object of veneration and head-scratching since its 1943 debut. While writing the unorthodox work, Thornton Wilder termed it “the most ambitious project I have ever approached.”

Today, it might qualify as a cosmic sitcom about an “ordinary” middle-class American family, the Antrobus clan, who cope through some major calamities inflicted on humankind. The Ice Age. The Great Flood. The Napoleonic Wars. World War II.

Banishing notions of linear time, “The Skin of Our Teeth” (like Wilder’s earlier “Our Town”), liberally mixes knockabout farce with tragedy and biblical references. Actors at times speak to the audience and critique the play — daring when it was written, if a familiar conceit today.

Intiman artistic head Bartlett Sher, following up his 2004 staging of “Our Town” with “The Skin of Our Teeth,” opening next week, says it’s still tough to “find the right balance of comedy and drama” in the script.

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Theater preview

“The Skin of Our Teeth,” in previews Saturday-Thursday, opening next Friday and running through June 2, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$48 (206-269-1900 or

Comedy? Wilder reportedly was inspired to write the piece after a prop rubber chicken fell from the stage into his lap during a performance of the hit revue “Hellzapoppin.”

But there are strong parallels between Wilder’s play and James Joyce’s experimental novel “Finnegan’s Wake,” which also posits a cyclical idea of history, as embodied by an Irish clan.

In 1943, many reviewers were stumped by “Skin,” or viewed it as arty mumbo jumbo. But it still won a Pulitzer Prize (Wilder’s third).

For Intiman’s version, Sher took the unusual tactic of casting a respected deaf actor, Howie Seago, as Mr. Antrobus. Seago will sign his role as actor Laurence Ballard speaks his lines.

Anne Scurria (a standout in Intiman’s “Singing Forest”) is Mrs. Antrobus, with Seattle’s Kristin Flanders playing Sabina, the Antrobus family’s saucy maid.

That part was a career high for Tallulah Bankhead, the first Sabina. The actress later mused that for “all the comedy’s spectacular success, for all the hubbub it raised, there were people who found it as baffling as the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. Typical was the reaction of a Park Avenue debutante reported to me by a friend. …

“The Park Avenue birdbrain said to her escort, ‘I don’t understand a word of the play. I haven’t any notion of what it’s about. Have you?’

“Her companion stammered slightly, then said, ‘Yes, I think so. … In general terms it’s about the human race.’

” ‘Oh,’ jeered the belle, ‘is that all?’ “

Misha Berson: