by Samuel L. Leiter
The fact that good writing in a play doesn’t necessarily mean good playwriting is exemplified by Noah Haidle’s cloudy Smokefall, now at the Lucille Lortel in an MCC Theater production. It’s directed by Anne Kauffman, who helmed earlier productions of it in L.A. and Chicago. Smokefall, while stuffed with playful theatrical conceits and clever dialogue, remains too self-involved and cerebral to reach across the footlights and draw us into its emotional web.
Taking its title from a neologism in T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets alluding to the conjunction of time and memory, Smokefall is set in a house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It begins in the 1950s and ends decades later as it examines a particular family across over 80 years. That none of this is realistic is signaled by Mimi Lien’s set, which, while revealing a solidly built interior, including a second floor, shows only pressed wood surfaces, perhaps suggesting the need not to take everything at face value; truth is deeper than that.
Act I is in two scenes, the first and longest placing us in seemingly normal family drama territory: there’s the mother, Violet (Robin Tunney, giving the most heartfelt performance), lovingly domestic and very pregnant with twins, to whom she often speaks; the secretly dissatisfied husband, Daniel (Brian Hutchinson), on the verge of permanent desertion; the 16-year-old daughter, Beauty (Taylor Richardson), who hasn’t spoken for three years; and Violet’s father, the Colonel (Tom Bloom), a 77-year-old widower in military uniform who’s suffering from dementia. Although each has their quirks, Beauty gets the prize for her meals of bark, earth, newspaper, and paint, which everyone takes in stride. This is all too precious, making it that much harder to identify with her or her family as people we believe in.
Another step toward estrangement is a narrator called Footnote, who fills in whatever we need to know about everyone, both their pasts and futures, prefacing each new comment by its footnote number. He never achieves the personal connection with the audience associated with the Stage Manager in Our Town, to which he’s been likened; instead, he seems a tired device employed to avoid dramatizing what we expect the characters themselves to reveal. Zachary Quinto, who plays the role—which doesn’t reappear until the very end—makes it even more problematic by his uninspired reading, although he becomes more interesting when he handles other characters.
These include one of Violet’s fetuses just before they’re born. It’s that kind of play. Dressed in red suits like old-time vaudevillians, he and his twin (Hutchinson) sit, legs dangling, in an overhead space representing Violet’s womb, bantering comically (and singing Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”) about their existential fears concerning original sin and the lives awaiting them. The question arising here and elsewhere is: what, indeed, is the reason for living?
In Act II Quinto is Samuel, son of the surviving fetus (Bloom), returned home to celebrate his aged dad’s birthday. Also returning home is Beauty, now 95, looking exactly as she did as a teenager. Soon, as time past and present are mingled, even the long dead Violet and Daniel appear as they once were, just as does the Colonel. Confusing? Agreed.
A backyard apple tree, planted when Violet was born, plays a symbolic role. Cut down when it grew old and sick and replanted when another birth arrived, it eventually invades the house itself, even though the place itself is crumbling and its residents doomed to vanish. Does it mean that we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that life goes on, regardless, or is it intended as a reminder of original sin? Haidle loves piling on the symbols and philosophical mind play, usually at the expense of the play itself.
Smokefall, which runs an hour and 45 minutes, is efficiently directed, acceptably acted, and nicely designed: David Weiner’s lighting, Asat Bennie Hostetter’s costumes, and Mimi Lien’s set all make suitable contributions. But the play remains too preoccupied with thoughts about higher meanings and not grippingly enough with the human conflicts that make drama dramatic.
Lucile Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through March 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).