“Smokefall,” a fable-like play by Noah Haidle about a family from Grand Rapids, Michigan, feels influenced by the work of Thornton Wilder, with its mix of the homespun and the metaphysical. It even uses a familiar device from “Our Town,” a folksy and factual narrator — portrayed by Zachary Quinto in the MCC production that has now opened at the Lucille Lortel. If “Smokefall” is a self-consciously poetic effort that winds up less engaging emotionally or dramatically than the modern classic it evokes, the play along the way has offered a number of funny, strange or strangely alluring moments; an effective metaphor or two; and some fine acting.
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The first scene is the most enjoyable, when Quinto as narrator introduces family members one by one as they go about their business on a particular day. The narrator speaks most of his lines as if they are numbered footnotes (“Footnote number one. The church bell tolls seven times. It is seven in the morning….”) and he is in fact named Footnote in the program.
“Footnote number two,” Footnote says, as Violet (Robin Tunney) wobbles into the family home: “Violet is pregnant with twins. Due any day now. Two boys. The twins are mistakes and they suspect as much…”
Violet’s father, The Colonel (Tom Bloom), loved his wife on six continents, as he likes to say, before she forced him to settle down in Grand Rapids. His wife is dead now, and he has turned senile. His daughter takes care of him. (“She is his constant friend, loves him when he wets his bed like a child even when he can’t remember her name,” Footnote tells us. “Even then she loves him.”)
In a moment of lucidity, the Colonel yells at his daughter’s belly, instructing the not-yet-born twins within: “God exists. Remember I said that. Never go to Detroit. Remember I said that, too. And that the greatest possible act of courage is to love.”
Violet’s daughter was such a beautiful child from birth that they named her Beauty (Taylor Richardson.) “Footnote number four: Beauty stopped speaking suddenly three years ago….” And now “eats impossible things like bark from trees…light bulbs.”
We learn later that her odd behavior was an attempt to keep the family together, after having heard her father complain about the noise.
It didn’t work. Daniel (Brian Hutchison), Violet’s husband and Beauty’s father, finishes up the day that we are witnessing, by leaving. “After this morning,” Footnote tells us, “Daniel will never see any of his family again.”
Later that morning, Daniel says directly to his daughter: “Beauty, would you forgive me if I couldn’t be part of this family anymore?”
Under Anne Kauffman’s as-always cogent direction, the characters are intriguing enough in this long first scene that it comes as a surprise and a disappointment that they are more or less dropped after that. The rest of the play expands its focus to include four generations of the family.
The second act takes place in Violet’s womb, with Fetus One and Fetus Two (Hutchison and Quinto) dressed as vaudevillians in red-checkered suits and bow-ties. They realize they are going to have to enter the world soon, and it gives them something of an existential crisis. They sing “Send in the Clowns,” gossip about the family, discuss original sin, quote French philosopher Michel Foucault, fart. The mix of Borscht Belt with the hoity-toity, which is surely meant to be humorous, extends to the third act, when the fetus we just saw is now an old man (Bloom) who is paid a visit by his estranged son (Quinto) on his birthday. “Let’s talk for a minute or two about genetic determinism,” the old man says to his son. (Let’s not!)
Character and drama seem to matter less to the playwright than theme – what he is trying to say about time and love and the circle of life. The theme is abundantly clear; his characters spell it out explicitly a number of times. “I imagine the universe as a household which is always beginning again,” Footnote tells us near the end. “A circle without a cause or an end, a circle that never gets tired, that has no apparent aim, but our own aim must be to find bliss inside the circle. To find joy, and hope, and meaning in the details and facts that hour by hour define our lives.”
The title of the play comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton:
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can…the moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Smokefall can mean “the close of the day before nightfall, when fog comes.” It can also mean “an artificial waterfall of smoke for shows,” which somehow seems close to a description of Noah Haidle’s play.
Lucille Lortel Theater
by Noah Haidle
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Scenic design by Mimi Lien, lighting design by David Weiner, costumes by Asta Hostetter, sound by Lindsay Jones
Cast: Tom Bloom, Brian Hutchison, Zachary Quinto, Taylor Richardson, Robin Tunney
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $49 to $99
Smokefall is set to run through March 20, 2016