Jack O'Brien believes that Thornton Wilder had television in mind when he wrote ''The Skin of Our Teeth.'' This play, claiming to be public television's first live broadcast of a theatrical stage production, will kick off the second season of ''American Playhouse,'' produced by a consortium of public broadcasting stations, including KCET(Los Angeles), South Carolina ETV, WGBH (Boston), and WNET (New York).
Thornton Wilder's allegorical masterwork, The Skin of Our Teeth (PBS, Tuesday , 9-11 p.m., check local listingsm), emanating live from the famed Old Globe Theater in San Diego, will be directed by O'Brien and star Blair Brown and Sada Thompson. After the performance O'Brien zooms cross-continent to resume his duties as director of a new Radio City Music Hall production of ''Porgy and Bess.''
Said Mr. O'Brien, in New York on a casting visit: ''The play is enhanced by doing it live on TV because of the abrasive way in which it was written. In the case of Wilder's 'Our Town,' the thing that makes it the greatest American theatrical work of the 20th century is its lack of artifice. It reaches beyond theatricality and touches something basic.
''The best work on 'Our Town' is the most artless work. It means, if you do it for TV, that you don't move the camera very much, so you can see the purity of the performance. You must let imagination use something that isn't there.
''However, in 'The Skin of Our Teeth,' TV itself can be a participant. I will show you cameras on stage at certain moments that will make good sense. I plan to incorporate much of the vocabulary of TV into the production. I will be shooting from the backstage into the theater, because it is important that the TV audience realize that there's a real audience there, primarily because the actors are so often going to be talking to the audience. Isn't TV a wonderful toy? It enables us to go deeper into Thornton Wilder's world.''
Why revive the play now? Is this an especially relevant time to talk about the end of the world? About little people searching for salvation?
Mr. O'Brien shrugs. ''Wilder's sister, Isabel, told me that 'The Skin of Our Teeth' seems to be done only when times are bad. Looking around me now, I guess she's right. . . .''