'Smokefall': Theater Review

Brian Hutchison and Zachary Quinto Smokefall - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
You can feel the straining for profundity in this surreal work reminiscent of 'Our Town.'

Zachary Quinto and Robin Tunney star in the off-Broadway premiere of Noah Haidle's absurdist dark comedy, directed by Anne Kauffman.

Your reaction to the new play by Noah Haidle (Saturn Returns, Mr. Marmalade) is likely to hinge on your reaction to one of its oft-repeated lines: "The greatest act of courage is to love." If you find the sentiment profound, the evening will likely resonate with deep meaning. If, like me, you think those words belong in a Hallmark card, Smokefall will feel cloying and pretentious.

Haidle is clearly influenced by Thornton Wilder's Our Town in this effort infused with heavy doses of magical realism, focusing on a deeply dysfunctional family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over many decades. Why the setting is so specific is unclear, although it does provide the opportunity for these words of wisdom: "Never go to Detroit."

In the first act we're introduced to Violet (Robin Tunney, making her stage debut), heavily pregnant with twin boys; her senile father, the Colonel (Tom Bloom), who has to be reminded daily that his wife is dead; her husband, Daniel (Brian Hutchison), shortly to walk out the door and never return; and their teenage daughter, Beauty (Taylor Richardson), who has adopted a vow of silence and eats only such things as dirt and house paint, which are cheerfully served up by her mother.

When I say introduced, I mean that literally, since the proceedings are narrated by "Footnote" (Zachary Quinto, who often returns to the theater between blockbuster Star Trek films). He numerically labels his informational comments, for instance: "Footnote No. 2: The twins are mistakes, and they suspect as much." Any resemblance between this omniscient character and the Stage Manager in Our Town is presumably strictly intentional.

The strained interactions among these barely defined characters seem to go on forever, with both the Colonel and Daniel addressing the unborn children through Violet's swollen belly. "Remember that God exists," the Colonel advises. After much prodding by his wife, a reluctant Daniel finally whispers his comments to the twins, which we only hear later.

The play's highlight occurs at the end of the first act, when we see the two fetuses (Quinto and Hutchison) in utero. They're dressed like old vaudeville comics, and their banter veers from dropping one-liners ("Tough womb," complains Fetus Two after one of his jokes falls flat) to harmonizing on "Send in the Clowns," to debating weighty philosophical ideas a la drunken graduate students. They also fight over their respective names — each wants to claim the better-sounding "Samuel" over "Johnny" — before they prepare to exit the womb as if jumping out of a plane. This entertaining, very funny scene ends on a tragically surprising note.

The second act features characters old and new, including the twin Johnny, now an elderly man (Bloom); his estranged son Samuel (Quinto); and the reappearing Beauty, now quite talkative, who miraculously hasn't aged a day although she's 95.  

Haidle has many things he wants to express in this play, and he does so, repeatedly, mostly through the mouth of his narrator, Footnote. Constantly explaining the action, the character lives up to his name by providing what amounts to a literary annotation. Telling instead of showing, the playwright spoon-feeds his themes as if he's afraid the audience will be too obtuse to catch on.

Performed on Mimi Lien's expansive, two-level wooden set, the work is beautifully staged by Anne Kauffman, who directed the play in previous productions at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and California's South Coast Repertory.

The performances are mostly exemplary: Quinto, in a role not dissimilar from another narrator, Tom Wingfield, which he played in the 2013 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, is subtly compelling; Bloom is moving as the mentally addled Colonel; Hutchison effectively conveys the angst of the unhappy Daniel and the reluctant-to-be-born fetus; the fiery-haired Richardson speaks volumes with her silence; and Tunney has a beautifully touching moment when Violet brings her newborn baby into her home.

But for all their considerable efforts, the performers are hobbled by characters who feel less like flesh-and-blood figures than creative conceits. There's tragedy aplenty in Smokefall, but it's doubtful you'll find your eyes tearing. 

Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Tom Bloom, Brian Hutchison, Zachary Quinto, Taylor Richardson, Robin Tunney
Playwright: Noah Haidle
Director: Anne Kauffman
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Presented by MCC Theater