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A CurtainUp Review

"Every love story is a tragedy because its ending is built into the beginning."

(L-R) Brian Hutchison and Zachary Quinto (Photo: Joan Marcus)
There's plenty of family drama in theaters right now, and Noah Haidle's Smokefall, arriving at MCC Theater finely matured after earlier productions in LA and Chicago, seems poised to become the next heavy hitter among the bunch. Referencing a T.S. Eliot poem in the title and telling a story reminiscent of a Thornton Wilder play, Haidle sets himself up for some inevitable comparisons with titans, but Smokefall—while perhaps not as revelatory as those influencing works — makes for an engrossing exploration of the comforts and burdens of familial lineage.

The play depicts four generations of a Grand Rapids family across nearly a century, using devices of magical realism to take some liberties in the manipulation of time. We begin with an image that might have been pulled from a 1950s sitcom: Violet (Robin Tunney) dutifully makes breakfast in a kitchen full of metallic and linoleum surfaces, even as she's very pregnant with twins, while her husband Daniel (Brian Hutchison) shaves and their daughter Beauty (Taylor Richardson) dutifully helps her grandfather (Tom Bloom) straighten his military uniform.

But, as we're reminded by the unfinished wood that dominates the set, surface impressions can easily belie the truth. Sure enough, we soon meet Footnote (Zachary Quinto)—a narrator whose preferred expository style is to "footnote" the words and actions of the characters — from whom we learn that Violet's pregnancy was an accident, Daniel is so deeply unhappy that he will shortly walk out the door never to return, and Beauty's internalization of her parents' troubles has caused her to remain silent for years.

Daniel's departure becomes one of those pivotal moments that not only changes the family's course, with particular implications for Beauty and the unborn twins (whom we later meet discussing original sin and poststructuralism in utero), but also bleeds into its history — inflecting moments past, present, and future with the legacy of his desertion. It also becomes a frame for the primary existential question of the play, one that is simple enough yet profoundly unanswerable: why live?

It's the two fetuses who ask this question most explicitly as they prepare to be born, looking at the answer from spiritual and philosophical perspectives. They also indulge in some brief musical interludes (including a rendition of "Send in the Clowns"), argue over their future names, and crack jokes ("Tough womb," Quinto's Fetus Two utters after one doesn't go over so well) in something resembling a vaudevillian routine.

Haidle's careful deployment of humor is perhaps best evident in the scene between the twins, but it's present and vital throughout Smokefall. His writing is consistently witty, and he does an especially nice job indulging in meta-theatrical nods poking fun at what he's created without falling into ironic detachment.

The comic and the tragic are kept in a fine balance, but emotional extremes on either side are tempered by the intellectual heft of the show: when confronted with a choice whether to elicit thoughts or feelings, Haidle nearly always seems to lean towards the thinking route. The play doesn't reach the point of clinical sobriety, but the sense of emotional restraint is palpable.

This applies as much to the script itself as it does to Anne Kauffman's direction. In her staging, the characters seem far more given to internal reflection than histrionics, and they comport themselves cautiously but deliberately.

Her cast is top-notch. The men all handle multiple roles with ease: Hutchinson shows dexterity in illuminating the complimentary inner conflicts of his characters, Bloom balances two characters who behave far more differently from one another, and Quinto creates key consistencies across his roles to create a sense of continuity as the play advances. Meanwhile, Tunney's stoicism is striking and powerful, and the young Richardson demonstrates herself a careful observer as she strategically captures and amplifies qualities of her stage-parents' performances.

Given its richly atmospheric title, it's appropriate that Smokefall benefit from smart and sensitive production design. Mimi Lien's set builds (and improves) on that of the LA production, creating an environment both nostalgically familiar and tinged with unease. The mid-century vibe is also marked in the costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, while Lindsay Jones's sound and David Weiner's lighting particularly enhance the more surreal elements of the play.

Smokefall itself doesn't seem so nostalgic for the repressed mid-century family dynamic it depicts. However, it does seem nostalgic for a nearby period in theatrical history, given the way that it not-so-subtly invokes the tradition of Wilder's plays, especially Our Town (from 1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Time will tell if Haidle's play can leave a similar legacy, but for now it will suffice to say that the playwright has at least offered us a take on the existential family drama that's fresh, dreamy, and gripping.

By Noah Haidle
Directed by Anne Kauffman

with Tom Bloom (Colonel/Johnny), Brian Hutchison (Daniel/Fetus One), Zachary Quinto (Footnote/Fetus Two/Samuel), Taylor Richardson (Beauty), and Robin Tunney (Violet)
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Ásta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Production Manager: Amber Mathis
Production Stage Manager: Vanessa Coakley
General Manager: Beth Dembrow
Manager of Artistic Production and Development: Jessica Chase
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets: $49-$99;, (212) 352-3101
From 2/4/2016; opened 2/22/2016; closing 3/20/2016
Performance times: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 2/20/2016 performance
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